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Kirk Cousins learns first-hand how good Vikings can be in his debut

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Saturday: Cousins played 'lights out' for Vikings (1:04)

Jeff Saturday praises Kirk Cousins' attitude and authenticity in his first game with the Vikings, a 24-16 win over the 49ers. (1:04)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Leading the 49ers by a slim margin late in the fourth quarter, Kirk Cousins was determined to single-handedly extend the Vikings lead, even if it meant causing U.S. Bank Stadium to cringe in unison when he scrambled on third down and slid head-first.

Cousins came up a yard short of moving the chains, but his attempt to preserve the Vikings 24-16 margin was applauded by those on his sideline.

“Hey, when the game is on the line, we’re trying to get the first down,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Go for it. I’m all in.”

Minnesota’s $84 million investment paid off – at least this week – in a season-opening win over the San Francisco 49ers. Cousins impressed with pinpoint precision, no turnovers and a fiercely competitive drive.

“You could see it in his preparation,” running back Latavius Murray said. “Just the way he carries himself, the way he goes about the game.

“For a quarterback to lower his shoulder and give his body up, that’s motivating. That’s inspiring because I don’t see a lot of quarterbacks doing that.”

The Vikings offense had many bright moments in Cousins’ Minnesota debut. On an afternoon where the quarterback eclipsed the century mark in career touchdown passes, Cousins threw for 244 yards, two touchdowns and finished with a 95.1 passer rating.

Familiar with the “distracted boyfriend” meme? The one where a gentleman walking hand-in-hand with his girlfriend looks over his shoulder at a woman in the forefront? That’s probably how 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan felt. After being Cousins’ offensive coordinator in Washington, Shanahan saw the QB he hoped he’d one day reunite with make incredible touchdown throws, including a 22-yard dime to Stefon Diggs and an 11-yard pass to the back of the end zone where Kyle Rudolph was waiting -- a throw he executed with the hand of DeForest Buckner inches from his face mask.

“(He) threw it in a place where only I could catch it,” Rudolph said. “That’s the trust we’ve built with all the reps throughout OTAs, minicamp, training camp and the preseason. Over my time here, that’s been my responsibility. When we get in the red zone, the windows are a lot tighter. My frame allows the balls to be thrown a little bit higher. Kirk threw it in a perfect spot and I made play on it.”

Cousins learned in his first regular season outing with Minnesota how explosive the Vikings offense is with the playmakers he has at his disposal. He also learned that playing with the backing of the NFL’s No. 1 defense is really, really nice luxury to have.

Ahead of the two-minute warning in the first half, with the 49ers threatening from the 1-yard line, Eric Kendricks forced a fumble while Harrison Smith swooped in to recover the ball. One play after 49ers tight end George Kittle dropped perfectly passed, would-be touchdown, Vikings rookie cornerback Mike Hughes came away with a pick-six. Xavier Rhodes picked off Jimmy Garoppolo in the fourth quarter and Smith sealed the game with an interception with 1:45 to play.

“When you can create those turnovers, create points for us off those turnovers, in crunch time make those plays, pressure the quarterback,” Cousins said. “So many players stepped up.”

Most importantly, that allowed the Vikings offense to take chances, even when things didn’t go so well later in the game.

Cousins did not complete a pass in the fourth quarter, totaling six incompletions on three straight possessions where the Vikings went three-and-out. There are throws Cousins undoubtedly wants back, including a near-interception by Jaquiski Tartt on a pass intended for Diggs. The pressure created by a defense that was in the bottom-third of sacks last season caused stressed Minnesota’s offensive line at points throughout the game.

“When you have a defense like ours, it takes a lot of the anxiety away from our offense,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “I think now it’s our turn to pay them back and make sure that we are putting up points and taking the pressure off them.”

The Vikings could have used more from its run game. Up until Dalvin Cook’s second quarter fumble, the Vikings running back was embarrassing the San Francisco defense. Between Cook and Latavius Murray, the Vikings run game averaged 3.6 yards per rush, which isn’t awful, but this offense prides itself on going as far as its run game will take it.

What Cousins did get to see is how explosive the offense can be with Cook as a pass-catcher. The second-year rusher recorded his longest reception off a short screen pass that he took for 17 yards. Once Cook is able to catch a pass, find a seam and rip off a big run that will be one of the most dangerous plays in Cousins’ arsenal.

“I told him many times, “I’m going to continue to throw you the ball, whether you like it or not, because first of all, it’s a good thing when the ball is in your hands, and second of all, you’re the guy who is open,’” Cousins said.

Cousins displayed great pocket awareness and looked sharp in his debut. He walks away from his Vikings’ debut with a glimpse of just how dynamic his new team can be and the things that will carry Minnesota in search of a championship season.