MINNEAPOLIS — In the first play of scrimmage Sunday at US Bank Stadium, football’s most productive receiver lined up on the left side of the lineup. The closest defender was lined up 7 yards away. So, at the snap of the fingers, Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings calmly sprinted 13 yards down. He cut sharply into an out lane, with Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Jones still 5 yards out, and caught Kirk Cousins’ well-timed pass for a 16-yard gain.
This general pattern repeated itself three times in the Vikings’ opening possession, and three more times in their second, as Jefferson destroyed straightforward defenders who retreated into man coverage or sat deep in a zone. By the end of the first quarter, Jefferson — the player every opponent knows is the Vikings’ most dangerous target on the field — had caught seven passes for 91 yards with little resistance.
The Bears eventually came to their senses, adding high safety to Jefferson’s team as the game progressed, but he still finished with a career-high 12 receptions on 13 targets for 154 yards. His average separation from the closest defender on those 13 targets was 4.9 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, making the Vikings’ 29-22 win the third game this season in which he’s raged against a opponent.
Despite a pair of quiet outings in Weeks 2 and 3, Jefferson leads the NFL with 547 receiving yards and ranks second with 40 receptions. The only player with more catches is Cooper Kupp of the Los Angeles Rams, whose role the Vikings are trying to replicate for Jefferson under coach Kevin O’Connell, the Rams’ former offensive coordinator.
To the naked eye, Jefferson appears to benefit from an inexplicable inattentiveness from defenses. Indeed, nearly half of his targets came with the closest defender 3 yards or more away at the time of the throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and only three targets entered tight windows (defined by less than 1 separation meter). But the best way to put it is that the Vikings have, more often than not, won the battle of how to defend it, eschewing traditional “go” routes and conventional pre-snap positioning to capitalize on advantageous looks for them. mid-range passes.
“You don’t need to throw it over people’s heads all the time to generate explosives [plays]”, O’Connell said.
Chicago coach Matt Eberflus, an NFL defensive assistant for 13 seasons before the Bears hired him this spring, said his team has been slow to adjust to the way the Vikings have changed the Jefferson’s positioning and added, “When you get him moving, it’s hard to roll towards him sometimes.”
It’s true that the Vikings have moved Jefferson around in the lineup this season. For example, here’s the breakdown for Sunday, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information:
— 27 routes start from the left side
— 14 routes start from the right side
— 12 routes depart from the slot machine
— 19 routes executed after the pre-snapshot movement
In opening practice Sunday, however, Jefferson lined up on the left side of the roster for six of his seven receptions. The other came after a fly move against zone coverage that Cousins targeted on a contraband pass to the same side. He wasn’t hard to find and the Vikings maxed out the Bears’ slow build.
“We just have to do a better job,” Eberflus finally conceded.
Jefferson said last week that he expects the Bears to double him often, especially after torching the New Orleans Saints and All-Pro cornerback Marshon Lattimore in particular – for 10 receptions and 147 yards in Week 4. no Lattimore on their team,” he noted.
But Jefferson’s third season in the NFL, and his first with O’Connell, didn’t always follow a predictable path. He embarrassed the Green Bay Packers by generating an average 4-yard split en route to a day of nine catches, 184 yards and two touchdowns. Then the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions combined to hold him to nine receptions for 62 yards, more consistently using their double teams and prompting Cousins to look elsewhere in his progressions.
After the Lions game, which the Vikings won by making a pair of 28-yard throws to receiver KJ Osborn on their game-winning drive, O’Connell spoke to Jefferson about trying to be a superstar receiver. O’Connell worked hard to convince Jefferson that his presence had opened the field for Osborn, as well as wide receiver Adam Thielen and tight end Irv Smith Jr.
“But that’s not enough,” O’Connell said at the time. “I have to do a better job of giving Justin different aspects of the roster in different places, different staff groups, whatever I have to do to help him because he’s an ultra-competitive, and we’ll take him forward. .”
Since that time, Jefferson has caught 22 passes for 301 yards, the two highest totals in the NFL over that span. Last week, he felt compelled to post an Instagram photo of a key 39-yard catch against Lattimore. The post, he said, “was for everyone thinking I slacked off during the clashes” the previous two weeks.
All in all, though, Jefferson played five games and the Vikings put him in position to dominate in three of them. The degree to which he has been open about his goals is reflected in the NFL Next Gen Stats severance numbers. Jefferson had at least 3 yards of separation on 44% of his targets, which translated to 73% of his catches and 66% of his yards. His receptions above expectations, an NFL Next Gen Stat that factors in the difficulty of a catch, ranks No. 31 in the NFL — another illustration of his openness.
His average of 109.4 yards per game, if sustained, would leave him just short of his 2,000 yard goal for the season. But on his first turn in the “Cooper Kupp” attack, he produces Cooper Kupp-like numbers. No one can be disappointed.