Vikings

Will Jaire Alexander Cover Thielen or Jefferson?

Photo credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

In the fall of 2017, the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers squared off in an important NFC North battle. While the game would wind up being known for Anthony Barr breaking Aaron Rodgers collarbone, another development went under the radar when it came to the Vikings’ defensive gameplan.

Jordy Nelson had torched the Vikings for years coming into that game, and with Xavier Rhodes in full “Rhodes Closed” form, the expectation was that Rhodes would shadow Nelson to try and keep the Packers offense under wraps.

But that’s not what happened. Mike Zimmer decided to have Rhodes shadow Davante Adams.

The decision to put Rhodes on Adams was an unofficial changing of the guard for the Packers. Adams went on to become Green Bay’s top weapon and Nelson faded into the sunset. With the Vikings traveling to Green Bay this weekend, the Packers have a similar decision whether to put Jaire Alexander on Adam Thielen or Justin Jefferson. Just like that 2017 meeting, this decision could show us what other teams think of the Vikings’ top receiving duo.

Selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Alexander has developed into one of the top corners in the league. Coming into Sunday’s game, Alexander ranks ninth among qualifying corners with 0.55 yards per coverage snap, and he has the highest overall grade of any corner per Pro Football Focus.

But PFF’s numbers don’t do Alexander justice. While some corners remain stationary, Alexander has evolved into a shadow corner capable of stopping a team’s best threat. Already this season, Alexander has shut down the likes of Mike Evans, Calvin Ridley and Will Fuller in route to leading the Packers to a 5-1 start.

While the Vikings sit in the cellar of the NFC North, receiver is not an area where they have struggled. Jefferson (first) and Thielen (fourth) rank in the top four of PFF’s receiver grades this season. That leaves the question of who Green Bay defensive coordinator Mike Pettine should be more concerned about and could determine who the Vikings’ top target is.

For Thielen, he comes into the game as the elder statesman of the group. Even at age-30, Thielen is still playing and producing as an elite level receiver. With 2.22 yards per route run (17th among qualifiers at receiver), Thielen has remained a reliable target for Kirk Cousins even if the play under center has been sub-par.

While Thielen has been good, Jefferson has been great for the Vikings. Jefferson trails only Adams (3.33) with 3.2 yards per route run and his 19.2 yards per reception places him sixth among qualifying receivers. While the numbers for both receivers has been there, it may boil down to which one Alexander matches up better with athletically.

From a pure speed standpoint, Alexander’s 4.38-second 40-yard dash from the 2018 scouting combine may be better used on Jefferson, who ran a 4.42-second 40 last April. With the added production after the catch, Alexander’s tackling could prevent Jefferson from taking a shorter play and turning it into a bigger one.

That last part is something that could play out with the Vikings. Even with the return of Pat Elflein, the Vikings offensive line has struggled mightily against the Packers’ front in the past two meetings. With shorter passes becoming the norm, the Packers may look to take away Cousins’ “security blanket,” which in this case should be Jefferson.

If there’s any indication that the Packers might be more worried about Jefferson than Thielen, it might have come from this week’s press conference from Matt LaFleur.

 

Whatever the Packers decide to do, it will be interesting to see how opposing teams view Jefferson and Thielen after the first six games. If Jefferson has the eye of opposing defenses, it could be one of the fastest rises to stardom since Randy Moss in 1998.

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Photo credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

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