Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.
Following a long, dreadful two weeks where the Minnesota Vikings crown jewel of the 2020 NFL Draft seldom saw any action, rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson made his official introduction to the football world during the Vikes’ heartbreaking Week 3 defeat to the Tennessee Titans at U.S. Bank Stadium. After getting only three targets total in the first two games, Jefferson was targeted nine times. The result: seven receptions, 175 yards and a touchdown.
Coming off a junior season which saw the talented slot receiver win a National Championship with the LSU Tigers, all while accumulating 111 receptions, 1,540 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns, Vikings fans have been eagerly awaiting this kind of performance from the team’s highly publicized replacement for Stefon Diggs.
Considering how the overall passing game has left a lot to be desired over the course of the first two games, Jefferson’s breakout was definitely a much-needed breath of fresh air. Let’s take a peek into Jefferson’s big day, which provided plenty of reason for Vikings fans to be encouraged about his ability to be a true difference maker for many years to come.
Let’s start this off by taking it back to early in the second quarter. Facing a 3rd and 2 near midfield with the Vikings clinging to a one-point lead, Minnesota is facing a man-coverage look with a single high safety over the top. Every Vikings receiver is being pressed, except for Adam Thielen at the bottom the screen, on the wide side of the field.
Typically, the most effective way to beat press-man coverage is by winning at the point of attack with slants or fades (just ask Michael Thomas). Jefferson does exactly that on this fade route.
But before we dive into Jefferson’s route, I’d be remiss if I didn’t commend Kirk Cousins on his pre-snap read and his manipulation of the single-high safety. By recognizing the man coverage, Cousins knows that he has to give Jefferson ample time and space in order to win at the line of scrimmage by getting outside release on his fade. If Cousins tips his hand (or in this case his read) too early to the single-high safety, that will allow him to break on Jefferson’s fade. With Cousins keeping his eyes locked on the single high safety, the quarterback prevents him from recognizing Jefferson’s fade, allowing his rookie receiver the freedom to operate on the outside.
Now, back to Jefferson’s route. You’ll notice Jefferson executing on this “hop” technique, forcing Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler to freeze while Jefferson is temporarily in the air. This essentially stuns Butler, and he doesn’t get his hands on Jefferson at the point of attack, allowing Jefferson to completely exert his dominance through his speed and quickness once he’s back on the ground.
Over the span of a few milliseconds, notice that Jefferson’s “hop” maneuver at the line of scrimmage forces Butler to guess whether Jefferson will attack his route inside or outside. With Butler guessing incorrectly by attempting to take away the inside slant with his inside shade, Jefferson has already won. He sticks his right foot in the ground and utilizes his 4.43 speed to simply beat Butler to the outside.
With Cousins doing a great job of initially keeping the safety in the middle of the field, he finally takes a gander towards the opposing sideline to see his rookie receiver streaking downfield. As Cousins releases the ball, it’s worth mentioning that the Vikings dodge a bullet on this particular play, as Irv Smith Jr (bottom of the screen) definitely initiates contact with the Titans defender, forcing him to the turf well past one yard across the line of scrimmage. The play should’ve been called back for offensive pass interference on No. 84 (Hey, Vikings. Go ahead and retire that number already, eh?).
You can’t help but tip your cap to Butler for executing a near flawless impersonation of Ryan Gosling in 2000’s Disney classic Remember The Titans. As the ball is in the air, you’ll notice that Jefferson easily has a step on the slower Butler. Jefferson is a natural at maintaining his position in relation to the football falling out of the sky. His subtle hand-fighting doesn’t warrant a flag for OPI, but also keeps Butler a safe distance from encroaching on the incoming pass as Butler attempts to locate the ball.
I promise, this is a safe space for Kirky this week. But Jefferson does a tremendous job of bailing out his quarterback here on an underthrown ball. By adjusting back towards his quarterback and high-pointing the football, as opposed to attempting to track it over his shoulder and/or letting the ball come to him, Jefferson continues as the tone-setter on this play.
Jefferson does a great job of securing the catch as he contorts his body on the way to the ground, all while Butler helplessly rolls on top of him. Talk your smack, Rook: You earned every bit of it on this one. Oh, and to the Chain Gang, why don’t you keep it moving down yonder. We’ve got first and 10 inside the red zone.
On this next play, the Vikings are an empty 2×2 set with a tight end lined up next to the left tackle. Jefferson sets up shop out of the slot on the short side of the field, a spot he executed to near perfection while at LSU. The Titans bring four, albeit in an unorthodox look, sending the outside backer while dropping their nose tackle into coverage. The coverage is a traditional zone Cover-2, with the cornerback lined up over Dalvin Cook responsible for taking away the short stuff. With the weakside backer faking the blitz right before the snap, this allows Jefferson a free release en route to his landmark.
Jefferson has a basic stretch concept on this route, with the objective to take advantage of the vacant space on the outside in between the cornerback taking away the short stuff, and the safety over the top. This stretch route is an altered version of a traditional 10-yard comeback. Instead of pushing his route vertically to his landmark, Jefferson’s path is at 45-degrees aiming towards the numbers before nestling into the vacant spot of the zone. Jefferson’s landmark is the sticks.
Before he no longer becomes visible on the broadcast film, Jefferson begins to break down as he approaches his landmark at the sticks. The weakside backer who initially appeared to have coverage responsibilities on Jefferson has since shifted his focus back to Cousins while sticking in his zone. With the corner at the bottom of the screen sticking to his Cover-2 responsibility, Jefferson is able to reach his landmark without any resistance as he turns back and gets eye balls on Cousins.
This play is a perfect example as to why Jefferson will be a difference maker at the next level. Instead of executing a simple pitch and catch for nine yards and a first down, Jefferson has just enough room in between the corner, the outside backer, and the safety over the top in order to become an immediate weapon as the ball heads his way.
After securing the catch, Jefferson does a great job of immediately snapping his head around and getting up field. With the free safety coming down hill like a bat out of hell, it doesn’t take much out of Jefferson to put a move on the safety in order to turn a first down into a chunk play for the offense.
By taking full advantage of the free safety’s over pursuit, Jefferson is able to stick his foot in the ground and show off to 60,000 empty purple seats his 4.43 speed.
With Jefferson leaving the free safety in the dust, the Titans are lucky that their weakside backer has some wheels of his own, or else Jefferson is more than likely making a house call on this one. To cap of the 33-yard catch and run, you love to see your receivers finish runs by initiating the contact, as opposed to simply running out of bounds. Jefferson’s 78-inch wingspan will be a full-fledged problem for opposing defensive backs when he’s in the open field. I fully expect this stiff-arm to become a regular part of Jefferson’s game when he’s in the open field.
You know which one’s coming next. With the Vikings facing a 2nd and 8 early in the third quarter, Minnesota lines up in an I-formation with the Titans deciding to counter with a traditional 4-3 front with man coverage. With Jefferson initially lined up in the tight look on the wide side of the field, Thielen’s motion confirms the man coverage, with Johnathan Joseph shadowing his every move.
As the ball is snapped, Tennessee passes along the man coverage with Butler now manning up on Thielen, leaving Jefferson mano a mano against the elder statesman in Joseph. The play-action fake to Cook keeps the linebackers glued to the run threat, leaving Jefferson with nothing but a washed up Joseph to try and keep up with the SEC speedster as he embarks on this vertical crossing route.
It didn’t matter if it was Butler or Joseph matching up with Jefferson here, as neither one of them can keep up with Jefferson in the open field when Cousins has this much time to throw the ball.
In all honesty, it was a veteran move by Joseph at this moment to try and get hands on Jefferson by attempting to hold him. Joseph knew damn well that he was already cooked and this was his final shot at preventing a 71-yard touchdown strike.
Fortunately for the purple, Joseph’s obvious defensive holding was much ado about nothing as Jefferson quickly turned on the jets and found the wide-open field as he continued on his crossing pattern.
Unlike his second quarter fade to Jefferson, Cousins puts it right on the money for Jefferson, hitting the rookie in stride as he dials up a house call. Jefferson secures the catch at the 39-yard line and has a good three yards of separation from Joseph as Kenny Vaccaro (hook ‘em) closes in.
Jefferson makes Joseph and Vaccaro miss simultaneously as he cuts back towards the middle of the field at the 26-yard line. When both Titans defensive backs come up with nothing but air while ending up on their backsides, it was high time that Jefferson looked back on the demolition he was responsible for and flexed on ‘em.
We’ve got a real one, Vikings fans.