Would ya look at that?! After falling flat on their face at home against the previously winless Atlanta Falcons, the Minnesota Vikings have ripped off three straight divisional victories, tossing their hat into the NFC playoff picture with the holidays right around the corner.
With the Chicago Bears keeping Dalvin Cook and the Vikings running game relatively in check for much of Monday night’s contest, it was on Kirk Cousins and the passing attack to consistently move the chains and keep drives alive.
And boy, did they ever, thanks in large part to Cousins and Justin Jefferson’s spectacular rapport, especially on third downs. The quarterback-receiver tandem had arguably their best game of the year, making big play after big play against a very respectable Bears defense. Jefferson turned his 10 targets into eight receptions and 135 yards while demonstrating a consistent ability to deliver in crunch time with the game hanging in the balance.
I know I can’t be the only one who wants to take a look back and marvel at Jefferson’s heroics from Monday night’s victory in Chicago.
Let’s start this off by dissecting a pivotal 3rd and 5 from the Vikings’ 30-yard line on the opening play of the second quarter. Chad Beebe motioning out of the backfield into an empty 3×2 set causes some initial confusion as Bears middle linebacker Roquan Smith follows Beebe before passing Beebe’s man coverage assignment on to the nickelback, Buster Skrine, pre-snap. With Justin Jefferson now occupying the slot following Beebe’s motion, Bears corner Kyle Fuller is now manned up on Beebe with Skrine responsible for the best rookie receiver in the NFL.
With Chicago’s corners honoring the sticks pre-snap, you would think that Minnesota’s rub concept on this particular play would lose its effectiveness. But when you have superior athletes in Justin Jefferson, you tend to welcome the challenge of man coverage. Jefferson is the initiator, breaking on his out route before Beebe follows inside on his crosser near the first down marker.
Jefferson simply beats the 31-year old veteran nickel to the vacant part of the field past the numbers on his out route, with Cousins recognizing the obvious mismatch before the snap. Safety Tashaun Gipson never has a chance to close as he’s tasked with providing help over the top on the hashmarks.
Jefferson rounds his out pattern, continuing to climb as he secures the catch 10 yards past the line of scrimmage with a sliver of real estate down the sideline to pick up additional yardage.
The seasoned vet Skrine never had a chance with keeping up with the former SEC speedster on this one, as Jefferson immediately leaves the nickelback in the dust after turning up field. Luckily for Skrine and the Bears, the safety Gipson was over the top preventing Jefferson from making a house call.
After Skrine whiffs on his diving tackle attempt, Gipson is in position, with the help of the Vikings sideline and the closing speed from safety Eddie Jackson, to bring down Jefferson in the midst of a chunk play.
Jefferson’s ability to turn routine third down conversions into big plays for the typically anemic Vikings passing attack was critical in this Monday Night showdown, essentially serving as a must-win game for both NFC North rivals. The Vikings began the second quarter by picking up 23 yards and marched into Bears territory following this critical 3rd and 5 conversion. This was just the beginning as Jefferson and Cousins were dominant on third downs.
While this next play took place on a rare pass attempt for the Vikings on a 1st and 10, this will go down as my favorite play of Jefferson’s young professional career so far. With Minnesota still clinging to a 7-3 advantage late into the second quarter, the Vikings are lined up in a typically run-heavy 12-personnel with what appears to be aspirations to attack the short side of the field. Minnesota’s receiving tandem of Jefferson and Adam Thielen are lined up in an intermediate bunch twins set.
Going up against Chicago’s nickel defense, you like to think that the Vikings have the advantage if they decide to run the ball here, especially after looking at the end zone angle.
With the strong safety Gipson entering the box to combat Minnesota’s probable run play on first down, free safety Eddie Jackson is providing single-high help over the top in another off man-coverage look for the Bears. After finding out the hard way earlier in the second quarter, Chicago’s nickel back Skrine has to feel better about his matchup with fellow 31-year old Thielen lined up inside. Thielen’s shallow arrow route takes him outside toward the numbers, allowing Jefferson to comfortably sit down just outside the hash on his five-yard hitch.
Jefferson secures the catch with fellow rookie Jaylon Johnson closing hard to prevent yet another big play after the catch. Now, I’m going to nit pick just a little on this one. Receivers should turn outside towards the sideline when executing on a hitch and/or curl route, simply because the objective is to run away from all the chaos and other defenders located in the middle of the field.
But after witnessing how Jefferson embarrasses Chicago’s defense back towards the middle of the field, I’ll just shut my trap as I pick my jaw up from off the floor.
Jefferson turns up field and doesn’t shy away whatsoever from initiating the contact with Jackson, the Chicago safety. Looking at the still below, I’m guessing almost every Vikings fan would be satisfied with picking up eight or nine yards on a 1st and 10 after being corralled by both Bears defenders in Johnson and Jackson. But as we’ve seen throughout his rookie campaign, Jefferson is far from your typical NFL receiver. On this reception, Jefferson shows us the type of physicality that will be part of his game for years to come.
While I suspected that Jefferson would have an element of physicality to his skillset in my first film breakdown of the rookie receiver, I had no idea that he was capable of embarrassing an All-Pro like Jackson in this type of fashion. Jefferson’s forearm shiver throws Jackson to the ground like a rag doll, all while the rookie Johnson is holding on for dear life attempting to bring Jefferson to the ground.
Jefferson then proceeds to assert his will onto Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller as he continues to push the pile, eventually falling forward for a gain of 13 yards.
This is the stuff of legends right here, folks. Rookie receivers who have the ability to consistently run away from professional defensive backs are not supposed to have this in their bag as well. If you haven’t been made aware before Monday night, I’m sure you know by now that Jefferson is considerably different from the rest.
And believe me, he’s not afraid to tell the opposing defense about the carnage that just took place as a result of his physical dominance. The kid is a gosh darn DOG. No two ways around it.
If the Vikings continue to play at a high level over the course of the next three home games against the Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars — and inch their way closer and closer to the NFC playoff picture — Jefferson will have no choice but to force the media to crown him as the third Vikings wide receiver to win the Rookie of the Year award.
The kid’s an absolute dog, Minnesota.