Washington Redskins

Breaking Down How Kirk Cousins Can Attack the Atlanta Falcons

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 16:  Quarterback Kirk Cousins #12 of the Washington Redskins throws a pass as he is pressured by linebacker Kaluka Maiava #56 of the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
James DudkoFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

The ascension of Kirk Cousins over a floundering Robert Griffin III should restore some staple plays to the Washington Redskins offense. In particular, Cousins' ability to launch the deep ball from a moving pocket can bring back the vertical threat in the passing game.

A quarterback launching deep passes on the move is one of the foundations of head coach Mike Shanahan's offense. It was a hallmark of the team in 2012, but has all but disappeared this season, as Griffin has struggled post-knee surgery.

Cousins has already proved he can fire a vertical strike on a rollout from play action. He did just that in his lone start last season against the Cleveland Browns in Week 15.

On first down at the Washington 46-yard line, Cousins directed a bootleg pass designed to attack the Browns deep. It was a Hi-Lo concept, a favorite of the Shanahans, with two underneath routes and one vertical pattern over the top.

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Cousins faked a handoff to Alfred Morris and turned to roll out of the pocket the other way.

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Once he got to the edge of the defense, Cousins launched a deep pass downfield.

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The long heave dropped perfectly between two covering defenders and into the hands of wide receiver Leonard Hankerson to complete a 54-yard scoring pass.

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The Atlanta Falcons and their 20th-ranked pass defense are vulnerable to this kind of deep strike from a moving passer. They were exposed by it last week against the Green Bay Packers.

On 2nd-and-5 at their own 32-yard line, Matt Flynn ran an almost identical play to the one Cousins executed in Cleveland. Flynn rolled out to target Jordy Nelson deep down the sideline.

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Flynn began his roll out with a fake handoff to James Starks before scampering to the edge.

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With the Packers maintaining blockers in front of him, Flynn had time to heave the long the ball toward Nelson.

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He had easily beaten rookie cornerback Robert Alford and the ball arrived to complete a 46-yard gain.

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This is the kind of play the Redskins have missed this season. Griffin's diminished mobility and subsequent reduced threat as a runner have made rollout passes tough to sell to defenses.

Most coverage has been able to focus on clamping on the deep routes in Cover 4 shells that take away the big play. But Cousins, who is deceptively mobile, might have more luck.

Both Alford and fellow rookie Desmond Trufant have struggled on the outside in the Atlanta secondary. If Cousins can successfully move the pocket, he should be able to connect with Pierre Garcon on a few deep strikes.

These vertical passes can be set up by a strong rushing effort. Morris has struggled recently, managing only 57 yards on 23 carries in his last two games.

But he should fancy his chances against the Falcons' 30th-ranked run defense. The unit surrendered 195 yards to the Buffalo Bills in Week 13.

They were burned on several cutback runs by C.J. Spiller. In this example, Spiller made one quick cut inside to escape for a huge gain.

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No member of the Atlanta defensive front won inside and Spiller's one cut was enough to get him to the second level.

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Once there, poor tackling let Spiller extend the play and complete a 77-yard run.

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The kind of one-cut runs the Bills used to amass 195 yards on the ground are similar to the single cut and go runs Shanahan favors.

The Redskins rushing attack should thrive in Atlanta and that will create play-action opportunities for Cousins off rollout passes.

Cousins also has the athleticism to get to the edges of the Atlanta defense as a runner. While he is no Griffin when he breaks the pocket, the former Michigan State star can make plays with his feet.

In the second quarter against the Browns, Cousins faked another handoff to Morris and ran a bootleg the other way.

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With the Cleveland defense overplaying the run by Morris, Cousins had a lot of room to attack, and he took it.

He sped down the sideline, outrunning defenders on the edge for a 17-yard gain.

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The Falcons won't be able to ignore the threat Cousins poses as a runner any time the Redskins create a moving pocket.

But more than just targeting big plays off play action, Cousins can help the pass offense produce in more patient ways. One of the reasons 2012's fourth-round pick made such a strong first impression last season is his patience in the pocket.

Specifically, Cousins has already shown the ability to work through multiple reads. A great example came on the final play of the third quarter against the Browns.

Facing 3rd-and-5, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan set up a bunch formation on the left side. Tight end Logan Paulsen was the tip with wide receivers Joshua Morgan and Santana Moss surrounding him.

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This multiple-route combination let Paulsen work across the middle, behind the linebackers, while Moss and Morgan worked the outside.

What was particularly impressive was how Cousins scanned and progressed through all three routes. He started by looking for Moss on the outside.

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The he came back toward the middle and briefly spied Morgan.

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Finally, Cousins worked all the way to Paulsen on the crossing pattern and fired a quick pass to him for 19 yards.

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On one play, Cousins had made three looks to progress through three different receivers. This is where Griffin has struggled the most this season.

Being confined to the pocket more often, as well as defenses not buying the danger of his dual-threat skills, has meant Griffin has been challenged to make more reads.

But often when his primary look has been taken away, Griffin has pulled the ball down and become frantic. Maybe a more patient approach from Cousins can help expand the passing game against the Falcons.

Cousins' willingness to work through his reads can help the screen game and give the Falcons fits. On this play from the second quarter against the Browns, Cousins saw his primary routes covered. But he settled for checking the ball down to running back Evan Royster.

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At the snap, Cousins took a quick look at his downfield reads.

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He soon saw that every one of those targets was locked up in tight coverage. But Royster, who was the outlet pass, was matched up on a linebacker.

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Cousins made a quick decision and dumped the ball off to his running back, who gained 25 yards.

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The Falcons have struggled against screens in recent weeks. They gave up a touchdown to Fred Jackson against the Bills and surrendered some big gains to Eddie Lacy in Green Bay.

With both Morris and Roy Helu Jr. as able receivers out of the backfield, Cousins can enjoy a lot of success with screens. They will prove a great way of helping ease the nerves of the young quarterback.

If the Shanahans keep things simple for Cousins and lean on the foundation plays of their system, there is no reason to believe he can't light up the scoreboard in Atlanta.


All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

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