Vikings

Justin Jefferson Needs an Even Bigger Role

Photo Credit: Mike Dinovo (USA TODAY Sports)

When the Minnesota Vikings came out of their bye week, they needed to find a way to fix an offense that was racking up yards but making back-breaking mistakes. As Kirk Cousins struggled to find his form, the Vikings made a simple decision to put the ball in the hands of their best player, Dalvin Cook.

The decision to ride Cook to the promised land may have saved their season: They’ve won all three games out of the bye. But what happens when their Plan A isn’t working? In this case, the Vikings need to turn to the next page of their playbook.

They need to throw the ball to Justin Jefferson.

In Monday night’s victory over the Chicago Bears, that’s exactly what the Vikings did. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak tried to establish Cook by giving him 30 carries on the ground, but it only amounted to 96 yards. The Vikings needed to put the game into Cousins’ hands, and the most efficient way for him to be successful in this scenario was to throw the ball to Jefferson.

He finished with a game-high 10 targets and turned those into 135 yards. Although Adam Thielen caught both touchdown passes, Jefferson was the player who had the biggest impact on the outcome of the game. The problem is that it’s not happening enough.

Twitter user Flipmazzi pointed out on Monday afternoon that the Vikings have been stingy in handing out targets to their wide receivers. Jefferson’s 5.5 targets per game were second on the team behind Thielen’s 7.0, and well behind the man that Jefferson is replacing, Stefon Diggs.

Jefferson’s usage (or lack thereof) isn’t surprising, it was the same reason Diggs forced his way out of town. It’s more surprising that run-heavy teams around the league don’t feature their top weapon in the passing game as much as they should.

Last season, the Baltimore Ravens (57.5%), San Francisco 49ers (51%), Vikings (50.5%), Tennessee Titans (49.8%) and Seattle Seahawks (48.2%) were the teams with the heaviest run scripts. All five of these teams made the playoffs, but they never got their top targets going, averaging roughly the same number of targets per game that Jefferson has seen this year.

Team Leading Receiver Targets/Game
Ravens Marquise Brown 4.64
Titans A.J. Brown 5.25
Seahawks Tyler Lockett 6.75
Vikings Stefon Diggs 5.68
49ers Emmanuel Sanders* 5.3

* Joined team in Week 8

In 2020, the New England Patriots (52.3%), Ravens (51.9%), Cleveland Browns (51%), Vikings (50.6%) and Las Vegas Raiders (48.7%) are the league’s run-heaviest teams. Together, they’ve also shown their top targets around 5.6 targets per game while staying in the playoff chase.

Team Leading Receiver Targets/Game
Patriots Jakobi Meyers 5.14
Ravens Marquise Brown 5.88
Browns Odell Beckham Jr. 6.14
Vikings Adam Thielen 7.1
Raiders Hunter Renfrow 4.1

The names on this list are an interesting collection of talent, but it should be argued that Jefferson is the biggest game-changer among them. After his performance in Week 10, Jefferson trails only Davante Adams in Pro Football Focus’ receiver grades. To add to this resume, Jefferson also leads the NFL in Yards Per Route run (among qualifiers) at 3.23. Our own Sam Ekstrom noted it’s the highest number PFF has charted since Steve Smith registered 3.87 YPRR in 2008.

Looking at his performance, his junior year explosion at LSU occurred because of many of the same things he’s doing now. Tabbed as the slot receiver in Joe Brady’s offense, Jefferson was targeted 134 times (8.93 per game) by Joe Burrow.

In a deep dive by PFF’s Anthony Treash, he noted that 41 of those targets were on slants, in routes or crossing routes. Jefferson caught 31 of those passes and turned them into 626 yards — nearly 20 yards per reception. With Jefferson also ranking fourth in the nation with 25 missed tackles forced, he is a player who can turn a short route into a big gain.

On Monday night, Jefferson showed why that ability has translated to the next level. Late in the second quarter, Jefferson took a slant from Cousins and turned it into a 14-yard gain after taking on multiple Bears defenders at the end of the play.

Because of his proficiency in shorter routes, it makes Jefferson’s deeper routes more effective. Here, Jefferson turns a crossing route into a 54-yard gain, which later set up a Dan Bailey field goal.

With both plays, Jefferson took a simple play and turned it into a big gain. This isn’t meant to be a slight on the other passing targets, but Jefferson gives the Vikings more bang for their buck on the offensive end.

The Vikings’ revival began when the coaching staff decided to get the ball back into the hands of their best player. Cook is a great player, but as I mentioned after the Green Bay victory, it’s almost impossible for him to duplicate 2012 Adrian Peterson and single-handedly will this team into the playoffs.

The next best thing is to have Jefferson get a bigger share of the offense. By giving Jefferson the ball, the Vikings have a better chance of generating an explosive play than running it again on 2nd and 10. It also should free things up for the rest of the offense even if it means gritting your teeth every time Cousins drops back to pass.

If the Vikings can adapt, there’s a good chance they can breeze through the next part of their schedule and find themselves battling for the seventh seed in the NFC. If not, they’ll find the answer when they’re reviewing tape in the early parts of the offseason.

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Photo Credit: Mike Dinovo (USA TODAY Sports)

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