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Cousins, Vikings aim to keep themselves protected vs. daunting Eagles defense

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Kirk Cousins took the third down shotgun snap in the first quarter from the Minnesota 30-yard line and started his survey of the field.

He patted the ball once, began his throwing motion and was toppled to the turf by blitzing Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Winfield knocked the ball loose upon impact and fell on it at the 18, setting the Buccaneers up for a field goal that proved to be the winning margin in the season opener last week.

As well as Cousins has typically performed on plays with an extra pass rusher, all it takes is one colossal whiff on a blitz such as Winfield's and the whole game can go awry.

“Voided zones as a passer, you always feel good about. I think the key is it being picked up,” Cousins said Tuesday with the Vikings in hastened preparation for their game Thursday at Philadelphia following that bitterly disappointing defeat to Tampa Bay. “It potentially gives an opportunity to take advantage, but there are pros and cons to just about every style of defense. You just kind of roll with the punches.”

Cousins, who was sacked twice and hit nine times against the Bucs, has the quick release, accurate touch and studious approach to take advantage of an extra rusher and complete a pass into the vacated zone.

According to Sportradar data, Cousins went 14 for 18 for 124 yards against five or more Buccaneers rushers. Since Cousins joined the Vikings in 2018, he has a 111.4 passer rating against the blitz, trailing only Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes over that span in the NFL.

The Buccaneers were especially determined to send pressure when Cousins was in the shotgun, a formation that became a bit safer when backup center Austin Schlottmann entered the game following the back injury to Garrett Bradbury in the first quarter.

Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said there were some “unscouted” looks the Buccaneers gave them early in the game that they adjusted to quickly. Winfield blitzed on the second play of the game, too, pressuring Cousins into an incomplete pass he had to rush to Justin Jefferson to avoid a sack.

The Eagles will pose just as much of a challenge for the Vikings, if not more. They led the league last season in sacks per pass attempt and allowed the fewest passing yards. The Vikings had plenty of prime-time trouble on the road in Week 2 against them last season, too.

“One of the best fronts, if not the best, in the league right now. We have a ton of respect for, not only the guys that you’ll see in the starting units, but they’ve got kind of a first and second wave of problems defensively,” O'Connell said.

“There’s always going to be some things where a team can get you, especially in the opener or before things have been really put on tape yet based upon game-planning something that maybe they’ve done in the past and just giving a little bit different look. We’ve got to find ways to survive those downs and not turn the football over, and that’s all 11 guys out there.”

Blitzes or not, the Vikings simply have to keep Cousins better protected to be able to beat the Eagles. He's not an escape artist like Mahomes and some of the scramblers around the league, so there's a little less room for error there. Whether Bradbury or Schlottmann is at center, right guard Ed Ingram remains a work in progress on the interior as well.

As with the Buccaneers and Winfield, who found a seam when fullback C.J. Ham turned inside to help the offensive linemen, pressure can come from anywhere.

“We’ve got to throw it out quick,” Jefferson said. “That’s the only answer to that.”

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL