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Will the real Kirk Cousins please stand up?

Cousins — the Washington Redskins ‘ quarterback, franchise-tagged player, ultimate practice trash-talker, coiner of “You like that!” and a listener of Creed — is something of an enigma. Everything about his time in the NFL, from his draft selection to his career-season last year, is strange.

When the Redskins drafted him in 2012, the decision made a complete lack of sense considering the team had just traded up to snag Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 overall pick. Yet, instead of building a team around Griffin, the front office used a fourth-rounder on a developmental quarterback.

For three seasons and a summer, Cousins served as Griffin’s backup. That changed on the eve of last season, when Jay Gruden decided Cousins was the better fit to run his offense. Gruden’s decision paid off. Cousins went on to complete a league-leading (and incredibly nice) 69.8 percent of his passes for 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions for a 101.6 passer rating. He was one of two quarterbacks, with the other being Russell Wilson , to throw a touchdown in every game of the season, according to STATS.

And the Redskins made the playoffs for the first time since RG3’s stellar rookie year. So, after spending all those years of wishing and hoping for RG3 to develop into the quarterback of his rookie season, the Redskins’ future franchise quarterback was sitting there on the bench all along. Right?

Not according to general manager Scot McCloughan, who decided to hit Cousins with the franchise tag instead of signing him for the long term. In other words, McCloughan wanted Cousins to prove that those impressive numbers weren’t an aberration. He was correct in his decision, because even Cousins’ impressive stat line was strange. Rather, how he managed to put up that stat line was strange.

In the first eight games of the season, Cousins sucked. In the final half of the season, Cousins lit up the league. As Rivers McCown wrote for Vice, Cousins had a 1.3 percent DVOA in Weeks 1-9. In Weeks 10-15, Cousins’ DVOA lagged behind only Ben Roethlisberger , Carson Palmer , and Russell Wilson.

Traditional statistics also show a great divide.

Comp. %YPATDsINTsPasser Rating
Games 1-866.96.3410982.9
Games 9-1673.69.41192126.1

But Cousins’ season can’t be defined as “learning the ropes in the first half” and “making the leap in the second half.” Time had nothing to do with Cousins’ second-half surge. It had everything to do with the level of competition he faced.

As Cian Fahey wrote for Football Outsiders, Cousin’s final stretch of the season looked like this:

In three of his final eight games during the regular season, Cousins faced the worst defense in the league (and the last quarter-century), the New Orleans Saints ; the second-worst, the Chicago Bears ; and the third-worst, the New York Giants . He only faced two defenses that ranked in the top 16 from Week 10 onwards (one if you discount the playoffs). Two of his biggest games came against the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles , two defenses that ranked much worse in weighted DVOA than they did in DVOA for the season.

(Of note: Read Fahey’s entire piece, because it really does a great job of breaking down Cousins’ struggles.)

The point being, Cousins tore apart awful defenses (something we shouldn’t fault him for). And so, the key moving forward for Cousins, if he hopes to secure a lucrative long-term contract, is translating that success to the games in which he faces tougher competition.

He might get that Monday night. Cousins and the Redskins open up the 2016 Monday Night Football slate at 7:10 p.m. ET by hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers , an AFC favorite to contend for the Super Bowl.

A year ago, the Steelers’ defense ranked as the 11th-best unit in DVOA and 11th in points allowed. Those relatively high rankings were surprising, given just how much has been made about the leaky secondary, but under defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Steelers’ defense underwent a renovation.

As our Ryan Wilson wrote:

In 2014, the defense managed just 33 sacks. Last season, they had 48. In terms of FO’s adjusted-sack-rate metric, that’s an improvement from 21st to 7th.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, they’ll be without second-year pass-rushing linebacker Bud Dupree , who landed on injured reserve to begin the season. Whether or not the Steelers can get to Cousins figures to be the key of the game. If they can’t, then DeSean Jackson , Pierre Garcon , and Jordan Reed should provide their quarterback with easy, open targets. But if the Steelers can generate pressure, their young secondary should survive.

Cousins struggled against pressure last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins completed just 53.9 percent of his passes, tossed seven touchdowns and seven picks, and accumulated a passer rating of 72.3 when under pressure. Compare those numbers to how Cousins fared when he was well protected, again, according to Pro Football Focus: A passer rating of 114.7, four interceptions, and a 76.8 completion percentage.

It’s worth noting, however, that Cousins improved substantially in that area this preseason. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins generated a 121.4 passer rating when under duress and a 136.0 rating when blitzed.

We’ll find out Monday night if those improvements mean something for the regular season. And if they translate over, the Redskins should knock off the Steelers. It’ll also bode well for Cousins’ future, financially speaking.

Here are four more stats to know for Monday night’s slate, which also includes the San Francisco 49ers ‘ hosting the Los Angeles Rams at 10:20 p.m. ET.

2. The Steelers’ winning streak against the Redskins

mike-tomlin-steelers.jpg Mike Tomlin will try to keep the Steelers’ winning streak over the Redskins alive. USATSI

If the Redskins do manage to knock off the Steelers, they’ll snap a five-game losing streak to the Steelers that dates back to 1997. They’ve failed to muster more than 13 points in all of those games.

The last time the Redskins beat the Steelers? 1998, when Doug Williams still played quarterback.

With that being said, they haven’t seen each other since 2012, when RG3 still quarterbacked the Redskins. They just don’t play that often.

Completely new rosters render the five-game losing streak meaningless.

3. Jared Goff joins JaMarcus Russell

Jared Goff is third on the Rams’ depth chart. USATSI

When the Rams head to San Francisco Santa Clara to take on the 49ers in the late Monday night game, their future of the franchise won’t even be active. Jared Goff, the quarterback the Rams traded up to draft this past spring, failed to beat out both Case Keenum and Sean Mannion this summer.

Maybe it had to do with his pep talks.

Goff will become the first quarterback taken with the first pick in the draft to not start his first game since the Oakland Raiders left JaMarcus Russell on the bench in 2007.

4. Blaine Gabbert is doing something good!

Blaine Gabbert has the third-longest active touchdown streak. USATSI

Blaine Gabbert is not a good NFL quarterback, but he is on a good kind of streak. He’s thrown a touchdown in 10 consecutive games, according to STATS. That’s the third longest current streak, with Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins on a 16-game touchdown streak.

Of course, Gabbert started only eight games for the 49ers last year, so his streak actually dates back to 2013, when he was still clinging to a job with the Jacksonville Jaguars .

Gabbert did, at least, beat out Colin Kaepernick to win the 49ers’ starting job this summer, so he’ll get the chance to extend his streak Monday night against a Rams defense that allowed 21 passing touchdowns last year, which tied as the seventh-lowest total in the league. Coincidentally, the Rams’ defense tied with the 49ers’ defense (and the Carolina Panthers ‘ defense) for seventh on that list.

5. One bad and one good passing game is on tap

1keenum82016.jpg Case Keenum might be starting, but he was a part of the Rams’ horrific passing offense a year ago. USATSI

The good news: Monday night’s finale features Todd Gurley , the best back and burger spokesman in the league.

The bad news: Neither team can effectively pass the football.

According to STATS, the 49ers threw 16 touchdowns last season, tied for the third-lowest total in the NFL. Think that’s bad? The Rams threw 11 last year. Eleven! Even if you combined both of their totals, they’d collectively finish 16th in the league.

That’s not even some 7-9 bull—-.

The early game, though, features one of the most explosive offenses in the Steelers, who once again are gunning for 30 points per game. A year ago, the Steelers ranked third in offensive DVOA and fourth in points scored. Even though they’ll be without Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant , their offense will still feature Antonio Brown (my pick for Offensive Player of the Year) and Ben Roethlisberger.

CBS Sports’ Jared Dubin already broke down Brown’s matchup against new Redskins corner Josh Norman , which you can read here. Here’s a sample:

When Brown was shadowed by cornerbacks of similar quality to Norman in 2015, he mostly torched them — especially when Ben Roethlisberger was under center and he wasn’t stuck catching passes from backups Michael Vick or Landry Jones.

While being shadowed on about 83 percent of his routes by Butler, Amerson, Sherman, and Harris — all of whom ranked in the top-25 in PFF’s cornerback grades last season — Brown caught 75 percent of the passes thrown his way, at 13.7 yards a clip.

At least Norman will have plenty to talk about when he goes to work at his new in-season TV gig.


Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Kirk Cousins vs. the Steelers defense and 4 more stats to know for Week 1 of ‘MNF’