MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — As Kirk Cousins rolled to the right out on third down in overtime of a game the Minnesota Vikings badly needed to win, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen were covered.
K.J. Osborn was open on a crossing route, so Cousins delivered a difficult throw on the run and off balance. Osborn secured the crucial catch for 13 yards, despite the ball being slightly behind him and dangerously close to the Carolina cornerback in coverage.
Four plays later, Osborn was diving across the front corner of the end zone to win the game. Finally, in his fourth season with the Vikings, Cousins has a viable No. 3 wide receiver to go to.
“He’s done everything right. I’m just happy it’s now showing up in games and that it’s showing up a lot in crunch time, too,” Cousins said after the 34-28 victory over the Panthers on Sunday that evened the Vikings (3-3) entering their bye week.
Osborn was obviously not the primary option for Cousins on the third-and-3 play from the Minnesota 43. Nor was he the first read on the winner, a 27-yard score on a corner route he used to beat the safety in one-on-one coverage.
“I’ve learned and taught myself, playing under Adam and Justin, to expect the ball every play. It doesn’t matter what the play call is,” said Osborn, who had six receptions for 78 yards on seven targets against the Panthers.
Jefferson and Thielen form one of the NFL’s best pass-catching tandems, as Stefon Diggs did with Thielen in the years prior to Jefferson. They draw plenty of attention, though, with safeties often rolling toward them to try to take away Minnesota’s best weapons. That’s why a productive and reliable third downfield option is so important.
“I’m so blessed to be able to play with those guys. Justin’s even younger, and they teach me so much just by their actions and how they play the game,” Osborn said.
Osborn was drafted in the fifth round last season out of Miami, where he finished college as a graduate transfer from Buffalo. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Osborn, primarily picked for his ability to return kickoffs and punts, was one of many rookies last year whose development was stunted by the COVID-19 restrictions that limited offseason activity.
This year, with a regular spring and summer of work, Osborn was one of the true standouts for the Vikings during training camp. Kansas City (1,321), the Los Angeles Rams (1,272) and Tampa Bay (1,247) are the only teams in the league with more combined receiving yardage from their top three pass catchers than the Vikings (1,246) with Jefferson, Thielen and Osborn.
“You can be hidden behind those guys. They get so many touches, but K.J. is so wide open sometimes, you’ve just got to give him the ball,” running back Dalvin Cook said.
The offensive line produced its best overall performance of the season. Cousins was not sacked, Cook rushed for 140 yards for his most in 11 games, and the Vikings — albeit with the extra plays in overtime — finished with 571 yards for the third-highest single-game total in team history. That all came against a defense that still ranks in the top five in the NFL in fewest yards allowed, sacks per pass attempt and lowest third-down conversion percentage against.
“We came out there and dominated the whole day,” rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw said.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The special teams units are again leaving plenty to be desired. The Vikings gave up a punt block for a touchdown in the third quarter. Punt returner Dede Westbrook netted only 7 yards on three attempts, fumbling once that the Vikings recovered and also bobbling a fair catch.
Darrisaw made his first career start and took all 89 snaps at Carolina, after rotating in the previous game with Rashod Hill, and kept Panthers standout defensive end Brian Burns under control. After needing his second groin-area surgery of the year during training camp, Darrisaw has finally assumed the vital role he was drafted for.
“I don’t feel anything at all from the injury. It’s completely 100% healed, and the worst days are behind me,” Darrisaw said. “I feel great.”
Greg Joseph missed field goals from 50 and 47 yards in the fourth quarter, after making a 54-yarder on the final play to beat Detroit the previous week. He’s 13 for 17 on field goals this season.
The Vikings are remarkably healthy entering their bye, but their one concern is a big one. Cornerback Patrick Peterson went on injured reserve on Monday after hurting his hamstring late in the fourth quarter against the Panthers. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who missed his second straight game with an elbow injury, is on track for a post-bye return, coach Mike Zimmer said.
29.2 — league-low percentage of conversions allowed by the defense on third downs. The Vikings had the best mark in the NFL in 2017 and 2018 before falling off in that area the last two years.
The next four opponents have a combined 19-5 record, beginning with a night game at home against Dallas on Oct. 31. Then the Vikings visit Baltimore and the Los Angeles Chargers before hosting Green Bay on Nov. 21.
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