Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson has had 10 games of triple-digit receiving yards this season alone. He leads all qualified receivers in yards, receptions and targets and has broken multiple long-standing Vikings records in the process, including those set by Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
But on Sunday against the division-rival Green Bay Packers, Jefferson was held to his second-lowest receiving total of the season with just 15 yards on one catch.
It was a far cry from his previous performance against Green Bay in Week 1, where Jefferson went off for 184 on nine catches and two touchdowns.
So, what changed?
Some (and maybe especially him) would say Jaire Alexander.
Against Jefferson the first time, Green Bay played a relatively uninspired two-high shell, giving Jefferson all the cushion a zone scheme allows. Jefferson was often left unattended as the defense was clearly still getting its sealegs underneath it. There were blown coverages, missed assignments and an overall lack of discipline. Jefferson took full advantage. But that wasn’t going to be the case this time around, especially with a newfound ‘clutch’ factor in Green Bay’s passing defense.
The Packers corner was tasked with defending Jefferson for a majority of the game on Sunday as defensive coordinator Joe Barry deployed a more man-heavy game plan while mixing in different, albeit pretty basic, cover 2 and 3 zone coverages.
Alexander did not shy away from his intentions and desire to guard Jefferson this time around, either.
Now whether it was the fact that Jefferson was so wide open the last time around thanks to the softer coverage, or whether he thought Jefferson’s actual performance was a fluke, he was already getting into Jefferson’s head knowing full well he was going to be on him much more this time around. NFL teams start installing their gameplan with their players on Wednesday of every week. Alexander spoke on Thursday, likely already knowing it was going to be a battle between him and Jefferson come Sunday.
But while Alexander notched a pass breakup in front of Jefferson and was able to jam him at the line while in press coverage to throw Jefferson off his route, Alexander didn’t lock down Jefferson all on his own. He had help, even if it was indirect.
You have help from all levels of the defense on this, though Alexander does a great job on his own. The front is in a wide rush front to stretch the guards and keep the interior of the offensive line guessing. You have the threat of Quay Walker, who even fakes as if he’s coming in on the blitz, before dropping into coverage. And then you have Rudy Ford coming over in support as the ball is released in Jefferson’s direction.
It’s true that in multiple instances Alexander had help from a deep safety, ready to jump on Jefferson if he got by Alexander. It’s not something you can necessarily count on, especially in single-high instances where just one safety is covering the deep zone. That safety has to accurately read the quarterback and react to that side. They can be wrong. Or they can not get there.
But it is a safety net, and that allows guys like Alexander to play a little bit more aggressively. It allows him to creep up at the line of scrimmage and engage Jefferson right away. It allows him to risk getting beat at the line and having to play catchup if he knows there is someone coming down from deep to assist. So that’s what Green Bay did, whether in cover 2, cover 3 or even man. Coverage was rolled to Jefferson’s side.
It’s very similar to what the New York Jets did against Jefferson with their stud rookie corner Sauce Gardner. Jefferson won a few more of those battles but still ended up with just 45 yards on seven catches. Gardner again jammed him at the line and threw him off as he stayed on him for most of the game.
On Sunday, it meant instead that tight end T.J. Hockenson ended up with the most targets from Vikings’ Kirk Cousins. Minnesota tried to exploit linebacker and safety matchups that they felt Hockenson could win — and he did most of the time. He caught all three targets where linebacker De’Vondre Campbell was the closest defender. He caught three of four targets when cornerback Rasul Douglas was on him. But while he was Minnesota’s most targeted player, that wasn’t exactly saying much due to the pressure on Cousins himself.
What’s been lost in the discourse surrounding Green Bay’s pass defense lately is what’s happening up front that’s helping. The Packers ran a variety of stunts out of different alignments with their defense line and the result was that the secondary, including Alexander on Jefferson, didn’t have to work as hard.
Again, Alexander jams Jefferson at the line but Jefferson recovered. It’s another wider-than-usual rush front, which leaves the interior of the offensive line guessing as to who to block and stretches the guards. Quay Walker could end up blitzing from the pre-snap look, but instead he just eyes the quarterback to see where he’s going with the ball. Meanwhile, Green Bay’s T.J. Slaton, while engaged with his blockers, gets a hand up and breaks up the pass at the line before it even has a chance to get to Jefferson.
Cousins was pressured 15 times in the game. He took six hits, was hurried seven times and suffered two sacks. He ended up with a pretty dismal stat line, completing 18 of 31 pass attempts for just 205 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Kenny Clark led the way in that pressure effort for the Packers. He had a 91.2 pass rush grade from PFF for the game.
In the end, it seems the best way to deal with Justin Jefferson and the Vikings’ offense is to (duh) take Jefferson out of the equation, which is a multi-level defensive task. Pressuring Cousins to force the ball out can lead to errant and shorter throws, which aren’t Jefferson’s specialty. You can throw him off at the line and the more physical, the better. Just make sure you have some help in case your guy gets burned.
And maybe most of all? Get in his head.
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Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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