There are many disappointments that took place during the Minnesota Vikings’ Week 1 loss to the Green Bay Packers. With an inexperienced secondary, a non-existent defensive line and an offense that appeared to be sleepwalking, it took the Vikings just 60 minutes to throw cold water on any optimism for the 2020 season.
Despite a long list of transgressions, the biggest disappointment was not getting Justin Jefferson involved. Jefferson played more snaps than No. 2 receiver Bisi Johnson but was effectively mothballed when the game was in doubt. If the Vikings want to turn their season around, getting their first-round pick into the game plan should be a priority against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
The Colts have relied heavily on a zone scheme under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. They want to take away big plays downfield and force teams to take what the defense gives them. This is a big reason why a cornerback like Xavier Rhodes was a walking disaster with Mike Zimmer’s scheme the past two seasons, and why things are “so much easier” for him since coming to Indianapolis.
As the Colts look to take away the big play, it wouldn’t benefit the Vikings to run their usual offense. By ramming Dalvin Cook between the tackles and trying to chuck a deep pass to Adam Thielen, Gary Kubiak would be playing right into the teeth of the Colts’ defense. Instead, the Vikings could take a page out of the Packers’ playbook from last week by subjecting them to death by the short pass.
By getting the ball out quickly, the Vikings can use Thielen, Johnson and the rest of their receivers to get chunk plays and keep drives going. The biggest beneficiary of this strategy will be Jefferson, who was an average receiver on the outside but took off once he was moved to the slot during his junior season at LSU.
Once on the inside, Jefferson didn’t have to deal with corners trying to jam him in the middle of the field. This played more to his strengths, allowing him to use his route running and quickness to get open. As teams tried to stop the Tigers with zone coverage, Jefferson made them pay by taking short completions and turning them into big gains.
Numerically Jefferson’s average depth of target was 9.4 yards downfield, but he made 6.4 yards per reception after the catch. Once the ball was in his hands, he made a living by forcing 25 tackles, fourth among FBS receivers last season. This helped him become a key cog in one of the most explosive offenses in the history of college football and gained the attention of the Vikings during the draft process.
The benefits of a short passing game involving Jefferson speak for themselves. By using him as a reliable target, it opens up Thielen and Johnson on the outside. While the Colts are torn on who to focus on, Jefferson can go to work underneath and use the same ability he showed on a slant that went for 17 yards against the Packers.
The odds of Jefferson posting a monster stat line in his second NFL game are slim heading into Sunday. But if he can do his part, make catches and help extend drives, there’s a good chance that Jefferson’s young career could see a promising performance on Sunday afternoon and the Vikings can come away with a win.