Justin Jefferson is in the middle of a tremendous season for the Minnesota Vikings. He’s making incredible catches on a weekly basis. He’s threatening to become the NFL’s first player with 2,000 yards in a season. Jefferson is leading a dark-horse MVP campaign and causing opposing defensive coordinators to lose sleep trying to figure out how to stop him.
Few players have been this dominant upon their arrival into the NFL, but New York Jets’ Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner has been.
Through the first 12 weeks, Gardner is the No. 1 cover corner, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s shut down Ja’Marr Chase, Stefon Diggs, and Tyreek Hill. He triumphantly stole a cheesehead and paraded around after beating the Packers at Lambeau Field. He is quickly becoming one of the game’s brightest stars.
That sets up for a tremendous matchup on Sunday. Jefferson and Gardner will meet for the first time when the Minnesota Vikings face off against the Jets, and it has all the makings of an epic battle. But, like many dream matchups, there’s a good chance this one will never happen.
It starts with how the Vikings have used Jefferson this season. In previous years, Kevin Stefanski, Gary Kubiak, and Klint Kubiak all opted to have Jefferson in the same role. Sure, he was moved into the slot now and then, but the Vikings preferred to have him run his routes with little or no adjustments coming into the game.
According to an article by ESPN’s Tim Keown, Jefferson hung on O’Connell’s every word during their first conversation. After exchanging pleasantries, Jefferson asked the one that was one every football fan’s mind.
“How does Cooper Kupp get so open?”
O’Connell told him that Kupp was prepared to line up anywhere and was able to serve whatever role was needed. Jefferson took that to heart and has moved around the formation during his record-breaking season. As a result, his route charts look like a series of wacky, waving, inflatable tube men stretched across the field.
This is a problem for Gardner, but it has nothing to do with his coverage ability. Despite facing some of the top receivers in the game, Gardner has only allowed two receptions over 20 yards all season. He’s also allowed a touchdown to Amari Cooper, but it’s debatable whether Gardner was handing Cooper off to a downfield safety on the play.
You could argue that Gardner is the defensive version of Jefferson: a promising rookie who made a seamless transition from college. He turned into one of the best players in the game from the moment he stepped on the field. But if there’s one flaw in his game, it’s that the Jets don’t move him around as much.
The Jets have opted to use Gardner on the long side of the field in most formations. While it spells trouble when the receiver is on his side, an easy solution is to have the receiver line up on the opposite side of the field or in the slot.
The best way the Vikings can do this is by utilizing Jefferson in the slot, where he has run just over 28% of his routes this season. Meanwhile, Gardner has played only six coverage snaps in the slot this season, meaning that Jefferson could be matched up with other members of the New York secondary.
That doesn’t mean that Jefferson will have a cakewalk to a monster game. The Jets are PFF’s No. 1 team in coverage for a reason, and a lot of that has to do with the players surrounding Gardner.
Jefferson will be going up against Michael Carter II when he lines up in the slot. The second-year corner out of Duke hasn’t put up shutdown numbers, with 1.26 yards per coverage snap and an 85.2 passer rating allowed. Still, he’s good enough to neutralize his opponent – even one as good as Jefferson.
Things could be even more difficult if the Vikings move Jefferson to the opposite side of Gardner. While the New York tabloids have gotten lost in the sauce, just as many receivers have gotten lost in D.J. Reed’s coverage. Reed grades out as PFF’s seventh-overall cover corner, and his 71.5 passer rating ranks 19th among qualifiers.
Even if Jefferson can crack the Jets’ secondary, his success may depend on the players around him – mainly the offensive line.
The Vikings did a good job adjusting against the New England Patriots after getting manhandled by the Dallas Cowboys. However, the Jets’ front seven might be just as good as Dallas and New England’s. Quinnen Williams is currently seventh among interior defensive linemen with 38 quarterback pressures, and John Franklin-Myers ranks 31st among edge defenders with 31 pressures.
Carl Lawson, Bryce Huff, and Eden Prairie native Jermaine Johnson can also get after the quarterback. According to Pro Football Reference, that has contributed to a 24.7% pressure rate – fifth in the league.
The positive side is that the Vikings will have faced six of the top seven defenses in terms of pressure rate after Sunday’s game. Coming into Sunday’s game, Minnesota has a 3-2 record against those teams. However, Jefferson has averaged just over six catches for 86 yards with two touchdowns.
Can Cousins get the ball to Jefferson while he’s on his back? Probably not. Does the Vikings’ offensive line need to find out? Absolutely not.
We’ve also seen Jefferson come up with some incredible games against top-tier defenses, but the Jets appear to be a different beast. With Cousins’ newfound confidence to throw it in his direction, Jefferson should be able to get his. Still, for fans expecting a one-on-one battle between Gardner and Jefferson, they could leave Sunday’s matchup disappointed.