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Will Justin Jefferson Break Records in 2022?

The Vikings receiver had a very productive Week 1, and Minnesota’s new offense looks designed to maximize his talent. But his day said a lot about the Packers defense, too.

The Steelers forced five turnovers and still almost lost. The Cardinals blitzed Patrick Mahomes to death and gave up a touchdown every other play. Do you ever watch a football game and just go “wait … what?”

That was the experience for many watching the Vikings-Packers game on Sunday. With all of the concern around the star receiver absent from the game—longtime Packer Davante Adams now departed to Las Vegas—few were ready for the performance of the star receiver still playing in the NFC North: Justin Jefferson.

The Packers had no idea how to handle Jefferson—a receiver they’ve played enough that you’d think they’d be ready for him. Just last season, Joe Barry’s defense surrendered an eight-catch, 169-yard, two-touchdown performance to Jefferson in a Vikings win. Apparently, the game plan has not been updated since. Jefferson totaled a career-best 184 yards, catching nine of his 11 targets and finding paydirt twice.

While the Packers may not have updated their Jefferson game plan, the Vikings certainly did, as first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell showed a commitment to Jefferson as the cornerstone of the offense that the Vikings under ex-head coach Mike Zimmer previously lacked.

O’Connell, most recently the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams, oversaw the Triple Crown season for Rams wideout Cooper Kupp, as Kupp led the league in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in 2021. With O’Connell bringing that offense to Minnesota, the big offseason question was obvious: Can Jefferson have a Kupp-like year in 2022?

If the Vikings’ first game is any indication, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” O’Connell did plenty of work to set up Jefferson for success in his new offense, to the point that Jefferson was surprised at the open looks he received in Week 1. I was surprised, too.

How exactly did Jefferson get so open, so often, for the Vikings? It took a village. Not just the quality coaching of O’Connell, but the puzzling decisions of Barry. Let’s take a look at what went down, on both sides of the ball, to give Jefferson this career performance.

Linebackers in zone coverage: easy pickings

Perhaps the most blatant example of the ease of Jefferson’s day can be summed up in this image, in which he is being covered by a man wearing the no. 91. Talk about a dream matchup.

This is Preston Smith, an outside linebacker. But how did Smith get tasked with covering one of the best receivers in football?

Defensive coordinators generally refuse to admit to any sort of “base” defense these days, preferring instead to say “we’re gonna be multiple” so many times that beat writers are all but forced to write “Packers Plan to Run ‘Multiple’ Defense” headlines. But, regardless of any narrative-hawking, the Packers under Joe Barry are a base 3-4 defense. They largely play with three down defensive linemen and two stand-up outside linebackers along the line of scrimmage. You can see that traditional three-down look here, against a standard Vikings offensive set.

Those outside linebackers are generally pass rushers, but occasionally Barry involves them in coverage. In order to drop seven players into zone coverage, for example, one of the two outside linebackers must drop. Some three-down teams look for lighter athletes who can drop into space accordingly—think Brian Burns in Carolina or Leonard Floyd in Los Angeles. But the Packers prioritized size, and ended up with Smith and Rashan Gary as their starting outside linebackers.

There are ways to hide Gary and Smith from coverage responsibilities. Going to four-down fronts can work. Playing man coverage can work. But the Packers want to be a zone team, and—fearful of the Vikings’ outside-zone running game—wanted to keep their big, edge-setting outside linebackers on the field. Once the Vikings saw the Packers keep linebackers on the field, they knew they had some layups available in the passing game. Here’s Jefferson motioning across the formation and ending up in the slot, where Smith must detach from the line to get into position to drop into coverage. The Packers drop into zone coverage (quarters), Smith is responsible for the flat, and Jefferson is afforded an easy completion.

Earlier in the game, Jefferson had a similar route against quarters—but instead of Smith as the flat defender, there was rookie linebacker Quay Walker. The Packers aren’t in a three-down look here, but still have four defensive linemen and three linebackers on the field, in an effort to keep heavy bodies on the field and stop the run. When the Vikings spread the field out, Walker is forced to widen out in coverage with Jefferson. Walker isn’t exactly sure how to space his zone correctly, and Jefferson doesn’t just get an easy completion—he gets an explosive gain (22 yards!) with his run after the catch.

In both of these reps, notice the personnel the Vikings have on the field. While the Vikings are in passing formations in both reps—shotgun with four-plus receivers detached from the formation—they still have a running back and a tight end on the field. The Vikings used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three receivers) on 67 percent of their snaps, and showed a variety of formations from this one personnel grouping. Here’s the same personnel, but built into a run-heavy formation.

Because the Vikings can run the ball well from 11 personnel, the Packers felt forced to leave linebackers on the field—but suddenly, when the Vikings spread the field out and looked for quick passes, those same linebackers were exposed in the passing game.

This is a stroke of quality coaching from O’Connell. The Vikings punished the Packers for trying to stick in a certain personnel grouping with these quick passes, while still running the ball often enough (and well enough!) to make Barry concerned about what might happen should he take those ’backers off the field.

While this is good work from O’Connell, it won’t work as easily against other defenses. Under Barry, the Packers have been weirdly OK with asking a lot from their linebackers in pass coverage. Smith has historically dropped in coverage a lot for an outside linebacker, but that doesn’t mean the results have been good. Here’s an example from last year’s playoff game against the 49ers.

When other defenses begin developing their game plans to deal with Minnesota, they will begin from an assumption that the Packers were unwilling to entertain: If we are, at any time, putting pass rushers over Justin Jefferson in coverage, we are going to lose the football game. While clever zones and tricky blitzes can work to create confusion and pressure, Jefferson’s target rate and YAC ability demand a more serious approach in pass coverage.

Wide, wide, wide open plays: the secondary was pretty bad, too

If you don’t know which one play we’re talking about, here’s that one play.

This is a wicked concept meant to test the Packers’ communication in the secondary. Remember, the Packers want to be a zone defense. As routes move across the field, then, the secondary must communicate with one another to pass routes off—to let a receiver leave their zone, enter another defender’s zone, and in doing so, become that player’s responsibility.

Theoretically, the Packers should be good at this. They return their five starting defensive backs from last season—cornerbacks Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes, and Rasul Douglas; safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage—and are playing under the same defensive coordinator. The chemistry, clarity, and communication should all be there. Against the Vikings, they were a complete mess.

Firstly, Alexander didn’t actually get reps with this secondary last year. Douglas only started playing after Alexander’s Week 4 injury, and he played on the outside with Chandon Sullivan in the nickel. Now, Douglas is a slot player—a position he never played last season—while Alexander and Stokes man the outside.

But the newness does not excuse the mistakes. On this long Jefferson touchdown, Alexander is initially over Jefferson, who’s running an over route. With the Packers in Cover 3, Alexander thinks that he can release that over route to the middle of the field, where another defender will pick it up.

Alexander will then pick up any route crossing to his side of the field, like the over route coming back his way from Adam Thielen.

But Douglas, who’s over Thielen, is not on the same page. He might have the play call totally wrong, as he’s tagging Thielen in man coverage and chasing him across the formation.

Who is left to grab Jefferson? According to ex-Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, who played a ton of Cover 3 in the mid-2010s with Seattle, a linebacker should sink underneath this route and fill the throwing window.

Sherman would think that a linebacker should be responsible here. He played with Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright—two of the few linebackers who could do this, as he himself notes. To expect De’Vondre Campbell or Quay Walker to sink into this throwing window is unreasonable.

But that’s the thing about zone coverage—with different coaching points and rules, different players can adjust their responsibilities. Alexander may have expected deep safety Adrian Amos to “nail down” on the Jefferson crosser, chasing him across the field, while Alexander replaced him in the deep middle of the field. You can see an example of the Giants nailing down on a crosser from Cover 3 here.

But this is also a very tough ask, as the post from the outside receiver (K.J. Osborn) is holding the deep safety in place. This is a gnarly little concept that challenged the Packers’ communication and rules by flooding the deep areas of the field, and the Packers weren’t able to stay connected and in concert. Douglas is in man coverage, Alexander is passing off crosses, Amos is sinking ever deeper, the linebackers are too shallow, and Jefferson is open for an easy completion, scamper, and score.

The Vikings’ offensive coaching staff deserves credit for a good design. If this were the only time the Packers’ secondary fell to shambles, it would truly be an ace of a play at a critical point in the game. However—it is not! At all!

Jefferson had two other receptions downfield, and both of those were on coverage miscommunications as well. Here, the Packers are in quarters coverage, and Jefferson is running what essentially amounts to a clear-out route. Watch as Jefferson slows his momentum after crossing Darnell Savage’s face, as he assumes the ball is never coming his way.

The fact that Kirk Cousins uncorks this throw to Jefferson is uncharacteristically ballsy. If Adrian Amos, the other safety who Jefferson gets behind, doesn’t also slow his momentum as Jefferson does, this becomes a very dangerous throw.

But Kirk choosing to launch that puppy is extremely good news for Minnesota. Jefferson has looked and produced like an elite receiver with the Vikings since they drafted him, but there was still meat remaining on the bone. At times, the relationship between Cousins and Jefferson has been called into question; the same is true with Kirk and former head coach Mike Zimmer. But O’Connell knows Kirk from their time together in Washington, is an offensive-minded head coach, and generally seems like a bigger fan of Cousins than Zimmer ever was.

A change in head coaching can wipe a slate clean. Throws that Cousins could have previously shied from attempting—high-risk throws that might end in turnovers—he may now be empowered to take. In the case of Jefferson, the fact that O’Connell came from a Los Angeles team that saw Kupp lead the league in every receiving stat imaginable generates the theory that a similar environment for Jefferson has been created: an environment in which any throw toward Jefferson is a good decision from the quarterback.

Perhaps O’Connell’s coaching acumen did not trick Rasul Douglas into playing the incorrect coverage. Perhaps his sunny disposition is not why Adrian Amos fell asleep at the wheel when covering Jefferson. But the Vikings were hunting opportunities to throw the ball to their star receiver. While Jefferson’s 11 targets was only just above his 2021 average of 9.8 per game, his share of the team’s air yards was on a record-setting pace in the first half, before the Vikings offense cooled into lead-management mode.

All of this analysis makes the final Jefferson explosive easy to understand. Watch the Packers defense scramble pre-snap to get on the same page. Look at the crossing routes developing deep downfield, and how it forces the Packers defenders into one another. Watch Darnell Savage pop up in frustration after the catch is made (a great catch on an inaccurate ball, I may add). The Packers defense just could not figure out how to get its ducks in a row on Sunday.

Question: So … is Justin Jefferson going to have the Cooper Kupp season?


Jefferson had one of the best games of his career on Sunday—but it was also one of the easiest. If you wanted to prove that Jefferson is one of the most talented receivers in the league, you’d have to find a different game to highlight, like in 2020 when he lit up the Bears for 135 yards on Monday Night Football, or last season when he bullied the Chargers to the tune of 143 yards. Those were sick games.

This was a sick game, not so much because Jefferson dominated as an individual, but because the entire machine of the Vikings’ offense revolved around him. When they needed a touchdown, they dialed up a play built to get Jefferson open against any coverage (check the Packers’ miscommunication once again!) ...

… and when they needed a third down conversion on the first drive, they hunted Jefferson in a one-on-one matchup against Eric Stokes, and Jefferson delivered (another!) explosive gain.

Jefferson is one of the league’s elite receivers, but that doesn’t mean the Vikings are just dropping him onto the field and asking him to win every down. They’re making things as easy as possible for him. O’Connell is using different formations from the same personnel to force favorable matchups; using motion to hide Jefferson from press coverage and safety help; and Cousins is throwing Jefferson the football downfield with room to run. The Vikings offense worked exactly as we all dreamed it might.

But it was one game—one game against a defense ill-prepared to handle anything and everything the Vikings tried. The Triple Crown of receiving belongs to Kupp, and that crown rarely changes hands on a yearly basis. Things are going to get trickier for the Vikings offense; it’s rarely, if ever, going to look this easy again. And that’s when the true mettle of Jefferson as an elite receiver will be tested.