Will things be this easy for Justin Jefferson all year?
Packers quarterback Jaire Alexander said he wanted to shadow Jefferson. The receiver said he expected it was coming, too, and the Vikings seemed to be preparing this week for the idea Alexander could match Jefferson in coverage. The Packers never put Alexander on Jefferson, for whatever reason, and the receiver tormented second-year Packers cornerback Eric Stokes much like he did last year, on his way to a career-high 184 yards and two touchdowns.
It’s foolish to assume teams are going to leave Jefferson with as much open space as the Packers did on Sunday. He will see Eagles cornerback Darius Slay on Monday night, and figures to be the focal point of defensive coordinators’ game plans all season. Teams will likely roll coverages toward Jefferson, assign a cornerback to follow him — basically anything they can do to keep one of the game’s most electric receivers from taking over.
The Vikings, however, showed they’re not going to make it easy for teams to take Jefferson away. On Sunday, Kevin O’Connell called plays that had Jefferson lined up in the backfield for a third-quarter swing pass, motioning across the formation for free releases, catching shallow crossers that put him on a linebacker in zone coverage and streaking across the middle of the field on deep over routes that gave him room to run after the catch.
Moving Jefferson can help the Vikings gain clues about a defense’s coverage scheme on a certain play, but they can also do it to get the matchups they want for him. When I talked to offensive coordinator Wes Phillips for my Sunday profile of O’Connell, he said one of the things that set coaches like O’Connell and Sean McVay (Phillips’ and O’Connell’s boss in Los Angeles) apart from the rest is they know how to “attack coverages — not just run plays.” They both know how to learn an opponent’s coverage rules and use those rules against them, Phillips said.
McVay did that masterfully in the Rams’ 38-31 win over the Vikings in 2018, moving receivers to exploit the Vikings’ matchup zone principles. Jared Goff posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating that night, and O’Connell undoubtedly will move Jefferson to create easier throws for Kirk Cousins, especially as defenses try to deny Jefferson the ball.
“It’s one of those things where depending on if it’s a man-based coverage or zone-based coverage, if there’s pressure or not, there’s a lot that goes into that for a defense when you’re talking about a guy that’s not just going to line up in one spot,” O’Connell said. “And then ultimately how it affects the other 10 guys — or nine guys, if there’s a double team — and their jobs of being in position to have success against some of our other eligibles and still have the same type of teeth to the rush. … If you want to bring pressure, what does that do to your coverage? If you want to play coverage, what does that do to your other matchups and your ability to get pressure? So it all works hand-in-hand. It’s that chess game that goes on snap in and snap out.
“I thought for the most part [on Sunday]our guys did a really nice job of taking advantage of some things where I didn’t think it was schematically something wrong that Green Bay did, but just within our rhythm and timing and how we put together plays. It starts with the quarterback, but then the detail and our group of 11 doing their jobs started to show itself a little bit.”
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