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Adam Thielen and then who? Vikings struggling to find another target

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EAGAN, Minn. -- There's a commonality in the turnovers committed by quarterback Kirk Cousins in the Minnesota Vikings' 0-2 start.

He has thrown four interceptions, all when targeting his wide receivers, after throwing five when going in their direction last season. And that has included forcing the ball to his No. 1 receiver, Adam Thielen, who has been the intended target on two of those interceptions.

Through two games, Thielen has stood out as Cousins' favorite -- and seemingly only -- target. And that's not a good sign.

Cousins has thrown 16 passes in Thielen's direction in two games. Thielen had six catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns against Green Bay in Week 1 but three catches for 31 yards on Sunday in Indianapolis.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Thielen has been targeted three times this season when he was considered "open" (3-plus yards of separation). Those have turned into two catches for 12 yards. He has been targeted 13 times when considered neutral (1-3 yards separation) or tight window (less than 1 yard), turning those into seven catches for 129 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Both of the interceptions thrown when targeting Thielen came on tight-window throws.

"You have to find ways to win individually, you have to figure how -- when you do get those opportunities -- to make the most of them," Thielen said. "That's probably the thing I'm most frustrated with, is when there was a few opportunities, it ended up not in my favor."

Thielen is not the only receiver open when Cousins has looked to ignite the passing game. But the way things have gone through the first two weeks shows Minnesota how critical it is to involve other receivers -- and quickly.

"I've got to find some room for him is the best way to put it," offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "We had some plays last week where he had no place to go with the ball. Me sitting there looking at what we're doing and saying 'OK we've got to get some people open in these situations vs. coverages or those type of things we've got to work to get open.'

"But we had some plays that were very difficult on him. Kirk is battling. He's doing his part -- he's battling, studying, working hard, practicing hard. I take it personal that I've got to help him more, and I know his teammates need to as well."

The obvious catalyst for the early struggles is the absence of Stefon Diggs.

Diggs, who was traded to the Buffalo Bills in the offseason, brought out some of the best play of Cousins' career from 2018-19. Cousins posted a 105.3 passer rating when targeting Diggs 240 times in that span and sat atop the NFL in deep-ball touchdowns (passes at least 20 yards down field) on throws to Diggs last season.

Diggs, who leads the NFL in reception percentage (58%) on contested throws since 2017 (according to NFL Next Gen Stats), allowed Cousins to take chances even when he was covered.

Through two games with the Bills, Diggs has 16 catches for 239 yards, 10 first downs and a touchdown. All Minnesota receivers combined have 18 catches for 291 yards, 11 first downs and two scores.

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And it's apparent to Cousins' teammates how Thielen is being defended without Diggs on the other side.

"Some teams have been kind of having like a safety on top of Adam or double covering Adam, so it's just up to the other receivers to go out there and make those big plays and to get open," said rookie receiver Justin Jefferson.

Added Kubiak: "[Thielen's] getting a lot of attention from defenses. We knew he would, and when that happens, other guys have to step up and make plays, so Kirk's just got to trust what we're doing and those guys just have to go win for him."

Jefferson, who has five catches for 70 yards in two games, was drafted with the pick Minnesota received in the Diggs trade (No. 22 overall). Kubiak believes finding ways to get the rookie open could help take pressure off Cousins.

"You're going to see more and more of him," Kubiak said of Jefferson. "But much like Dalvin (Cook), much like Adam, you want to get touches for those type of football players. And with the amount of plays we've been running, touches are hard to come by. So we've got to go find some snaps and if we do that, I think we'll find the touches."

Jefferson, who ran a 4.43 40-yard dash, could be the key in opening up the passing game. His straight-line speed is an attribute similar to what the Vikings had with Diggs.

Vikings offensive coordinators utilized Diggs over the top and had him clear out for Thielen or drew up plays for him off deep post or go routes off play-action.

Cousins led the NFL with 13 touchdowns off play-action in 2019. Through two games, the Vikings have attempted eight play-action passes, which is tied for the fewest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

That number needs to increase to bring out the best in Cousins, along with the contributions of receivers not named Thielen.