EAGAN, Minn. (AP)Justin Jefferson has proven to be one of the most difficult receivers in the NFL to cover, starting his third season seemingly with the potential to dominate the game for the next decade.
The Minnesota Vikings are trying to toughen the task for their opponents, just by making it harder to figure out where Jefferson is going to be.
As the 23-year-old keeps moving up on the lists of all-time records, the Vikings are moving him around the field as much as their playbook and the rules will allow – particularly before the snap.
”I can be so many different places,” Jefferson said. ”That’s how we kind of get away from the man to man, and if they do play man to man, we’ve got something for it.”
New coach Kevin O’Connell uses the term ”illusion of complexity” to describe the offense he and his staff have installed with the Vikings, meaning an attempt to make the other team think there’s a lot going on when the assignment for each player is actually quite simple.
Jefferson’s first of two touchdowns in the opener last week against Green Bay, when he torched the Packers for 184 receiving yards in the 23-7 victory, was a fourth-down play that began with him running from left to right behind quarterback Kirk Cousins before the ball was snapped. Fellow wide receiver Adam Thielen was lined up in the slot, and his slant route prompted two Packers defenders to initially turn his way. That left Jefferson all alone in the flat for the walk-in score.
”You know seven times out of 10 that he’s involved in the offensive play. Then when you get him moving, now the defense has to think – rethink what he’s doing from the position that he started in to what he’s doing in the new position,” said Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson, providing the other-side-of-the-ball perspective. ”It’s going to be a great ride, and I can’t wait to see where it’s going to take us.”
Thielen, who’s in his 10th year in the league, has marveled at Jefferson’s swift mastery of the position since he was drafted in the first round in 2020.
”He makes it look so easy and smooth that it doesn’t really like flash out at you,” Thielen said. ”Maybe the play wasn’t necessarily designed for man coverage, but he was able to beat it anyway.”
The syncing of the offense will be challenged on Monday night when the Vikings visit Philadelphia and those relentlessly raucous Eagles fans. Jefferson will be squarely in the spotlight again, as the player the Eagles passed on to draft wide receiver Jalen Reagor instead, one spot in front of him.
”That’s when I like to have the best game, to showcase to the world what I have, and my argument is being the best receiver,” Jefferson said, adding: ”Every mock draft had me going to Philly, so when Philly was on the board, getting a phone call and it being Minnesota, it was definitely a shocker. But I’m definitely happy, way more happy, to be here than there.”
Reagor was traded to the Vikings last month. Minnesota also signed linebacker Jordan Hicks in the spring. Hicks played his first four years for Philadelphia, the last being the 2017-18 championship season. The Eagles won the Super Bowl, of course, at U.S. Bank Stadium.
When the Vikings went downtown to practice there early in training camp, Hicks felt those good memories rush back.
”Every time I think back, it’s like a book. It’s a like a story. You’re opening the pages again,” said Hicks, who tied a career high with 14 tackles and had a sack and a forced fumble against Green Bay.
Now he’ll try to repeat that performance in another familiar venue, even if it’s no longer friendly.
”I’d imagine it’ll be pretty hostile, which is exciting. Anytime that juice is out there, it does nothing but amp you up,” Hicks said. ”I’m excited.”
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