How Did Detroit Erase Justin Jefferson In Week 3?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Since he stepped foot in the league in 2020, no team has contained Justin Jefferson more than the Detroit Lions did earlier this season in Week 3 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The 2022 NFL Offensive Player of the Year candidate was held to a career-low 14 yards on six targets against Aaron Glenn‘s defense. Skoldiers will remember K.J. Osborn coming up big with consecutive 28-yard receptions on Minnesota’s final drive at the buzzer — including the game-winning touchdown grab. Adam Thielen also found the end zone after receiving eight targets on the afternoon. If Detroit came into the contest with a concerted effort to make the Vikings beat them with their role-player receivers, the Purple and Gold obliged — especially in crunch time.

Did Glenn accomplish what Bill Belichick couldn’t by devising the quintessential scheme to shut down Jefferson? Or were opportunities for Jefferson squandered by Kevin O’Connell‘s offense in the late-September divisional tilt? Let’s hit the film room to dissect Jefferson’s Week 3 disappearing act.

On Minnesota’s opening script, KOC calls for a 21-personnel play-action concept against Detroit’s base 4-3 defense. Jefferson wins inside easily against Jeff Okudah‘s press and finds the open grass in front of the safety on Glenn’s Cover 2 call. Detroit’s front gets a hand on the pass intended for Jefferson, preventing an easy pitch-and-catch chain mover to No. 18.

On the very next play — second-and-10 — the Vikings catch the Lions in a Cover 0 blitz out of a 3×1 set with 11-personnel. This means that Minnesota’s pass catchers have one-on-one matchups across the board. The free safety honors the play-fake to Dalvin Cook and is responsible for him if he leaks out into the flat — leaving Jefferson isolated against Okudah’s press-man coverage. Jefferson wins outside leverage with a dead-leg release and forces Okudah to honor the vertical threat before shutting it down on the hitch, with clear separation. The throw from Cousins is a bit high, and Jefferson drops the intended pass that would’ve resulted in a third-and-manageable, at the very least.

For the third-straight play, the Vikings try to get their superstar receiver open — this time on third-and-10. Instead of lining Jefferson up on the boundary again, KOC moves No. 18 to the field, and Okudah follows him. The Lions are in a Two-Man coverage with both safeties lurking, and the corners manned up on Minnesota’s receivers. Detroit’s strong safety stays on top of Jefferson while Okudah wins the hand fight at the line of scrimmage, preventing Jefferson from reaching the first down marker with any semblance of separation on his delayed out.

It’s tough to tell whether or not Cousins was checking it down to Irv Smith on the delayed flat, as the ball falls incomplete between the tight end and Jefferson.

The lack of production for Jefferson on the opening script wasn’t primarily attributed to Glenn “taking No. 18 away,” Give credit to Detroit’s front for deflecting the first-down pass at the line of scrimmage. And for Okudah winning his matchup in man coverage (with safety help over the top) on third down. But Minnesota’s superstar needs to come down with the easy reception on second down to help keep the offense ahead of the chains and out of third-and-long.

On the following offensive possession, the Vikings are faced with second-and-10. KOC decides to go empty out of 11-personnel with Jefferson lined up in the slot to Cousins’ right. Glenn goes dime with six defensive backs and again sticks his defense in a Two-Man coverage — with Okudah moving inside as the nickel matched up on Jefferson. With the backer vacating the middle of the field due to his man coverage responsibilities on Cook, Cousins makes an easy pre-snap read and hits Jefferson on the shallow dig for five yards. Detroit’s free safety has eyes on Jefferson throughout and triggers, preventing any opportunity for yards after the catch (YAC).

On Minnesota’s next play — third-and-five — Glenn goes a great job of disguising his Two-Man coverage by inserting his safety into the box. Is the safety coming on the blitz? Is he responsible for Cook out of the backfield on another Cover 0 with the backer blitzing? Cousins is anticipating blitz pre-snap by keeping Smith and Cook in to protect. Instead, DeShon Elliott immediately doubles Jefferson’s (along with Okudah) corner route on the smash concept, with Thielen occupying the underneath inverted whip route.

Similar to what he displayed against the New England Patriots on Thanksgiving, Jefferson successfully splits the double and gains separation on the corner route. And despite sticking with Jefferson for the duration of his drop, Cousins doesn’t trust it and instead opts for the throwaway near Osborn’s shallow cross. Notice KOC at the bottom of the screen, essentially begging Cousins to let it rip for Jefferson.

It’s taken Kirky a few months to get comfortable throwing into doubles for Jefferson. My guess is if he gets a similar look this time around, he won’t hesitate the same way he did on this particular third down.

On the next offensive drive, the Vikings are faced with a second-and-10 on Detroit’s 45-yard line. For the first time all game, Okudah doesn’t follow Jefferson into the slot — an easy tell for zone coverage based on in-game tendencies. Glenn sends the nickel that’s matched up on Jefferson on a blitz while dropping his defensive backfield into a Cover 2. Alexander Mattison gets blown up on his protection against the blitz, and Jefferson fails to get his head inside as the hot receiver. Instead of identifying the deep Cover 2, Jefferson proceeds on his vertical post and never gets eyeballs on his quarterback.

Ideally, Jefferson recognizes the nickel blitz and makes himself available as the hot receiver. Everyone coaches it differently, but Jefferson typically has one of two options here:

  • He can throttle down and find open grass between the backers and safeties.
  • Or he can simply get eyeballs on his quarterback for Cousins to rip the cover-two high-velocity throw. Which usually requires Jefferson to high-point the ball over the middle so Cousins can get the throw over the dropping backers and in front of the deep safeties.

Let’s move ahead to Minnesota’s final drive. With just over a minute remaining, the Vikings have first-and-10 on their own 44-yard line. The Lions are lined up in press-man with the strong safety in the box matched up on top of Jefferson and Okudah in the slot. At the snap, the double immediately comes on No. 18, leaving Osborn, Thielen, and Smith in one-on-one coverage with the free safety taking away the deep middle. Jefferson doesn’t create separation on his corner route, nor does Osborn on his low responsibilities for this smash concept with his shallow dig. Glenn forced the ball to anyone other than Jefferson with the bracket coverage, and the pass fell incomplete to Osborn.

Instead of moving Jefferson around on second-and-10, KOC dials up another 2×1 set out of 11-personnel with his most prized receiver again in the slot. And Glenn responds with the exact same press-man bracket coverage with Okudah on Jefferson and the strong safety not even pretending to disguise his impending double on No. 18. The safety Elliott completely eliminates Jefferson’s inside leverage, and even the dime back disrupts Jefferson’s release by getting physical with him as he pursues his man coverage responsibilities on Irv Smith. The three defenders completely eliminate Jefferson and force the ball out to Osborn on the deep crosser for 28 yards.

On what would eventually result in the game-winning touchdown strike to Osborn, KOC moves Jefferson outside on the boundary with a condensed split, giving him additional grass to work with against Okudah. The Lions revert to their Two-Man coverage, which offers Jefferson more freedom to get open in his man matchup on Okudah. Jefferson instantly wins outside leverage and does a great job pressing his route vertically before breaking on the deep out, creating clear separation with an accurately placed throw. Instead, Cousins sees Osborn winning from the slot after he wins inside leverage, forcing the nickel to turn his hips before breaking outside on his corner route. The strong safety gets caught looking in the backfield right as Osborn makes his break, and the cannons are going off inside U.S. Bank Stadium.

Ultimately, Glenn relied heavily on Two-Man coverage, with Okudah following Jefferson around the field for most of the day. Glenn was terrific in spots with disguising his coverages by moving his safeties in and out of the box when bracket coverages on Jefferson were called. But that’s not to say the Vikings didn’t have their opportunities to get Jefferson rolling. A mix of sub-standard execution by Jefferson and lack of trust by Cousins throwing into said doubles resulted in the career-worst statistical day for Jefferson.

Will Glenn have the same emphasis on Two-Man this Sunday after the Vikings’ recent success throwing into doubles? Regardless of Detroit’s game plan for Jefferson and Minnesota’s aerial attack, fans should expect plenty of fireworks courtesy of these two offenses on Sunday.

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