Green Bay Packers

How Did Teams Limit Justin Jefferson's Effectiveness?

Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson has been amazing this season. With 1,756 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, the third-year player is the driver of an offense without an elite quarterback and a running game that hasn’t been as productive as it was in years past. So stopping him is nearly impossible, but limiting his productivity is a major factor for the Green Bay Packers to win on Sunday and stay in the NFC playoff race.

So far, only four teams were able to limit Jefferson to fewer than 50 yards: the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2, the Detroit Lions in Week 3, the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11, and the New York Jets in Week 13. They didn’t necessarily use the same tactics to make it work, and the Lions also allowed Jefferson’s best game of the season with 223 yards in Week 14. However, the Packers can learn lessons from watching how those defenses operated against the Vikings.

Philadelphia Eagles

There is a frequent misconception that a team must play man coverage for its best cornerback to follow an opposing wide receiver. The Eagles showed it’s possible to execute a zone-heavy scheme and still allow your best player to shadow the star on the other side.

Against the Vikings, the Eagles used man coverage on 26.9% of the defensive snaps (which is average in the NFL), three fewer percentage points than they did in the previous week against the Detroit Lions. Even so, Darius Slay was responsible for guarding Jefferson and did a great job. Slay touched the ball on five of the six passes where Kirk Cousins targeted Jefferson when he was lined up across, including two interceptions.

“I’m a guy that just needs to determine whether a guy does an outside release or inside release,” Slay said after the game on Patrick Peterson’s All Things Covered podcast. “From what I watched from Jefferson, he had certain releases that he liked to do. I just knew for a fact that, most likely, a lot of his routes were inside breaking routes just because the team does inside breaking routes.

“If you watch the [Los Angeles] Rams, they do a lot of inside breaking routes. When he takes an inside release, there’s a good chance he’s going to do an inside route. I just knew that off the splits, so I kind of got a little ahead of the game.”

Jefferson finished that game with six receptions for 48 yards, and the Vikings scored only seven points, their second-lowest number of the season.

Detroit Lions

Conversely, the Lions are a man-heavy team. In Week 3 against the Vikings, they used man coverage on 69.6% of the defensive snaps; no other team got to 60% that week. Only the New England Patriots and the Chicago Bears were above 50%. Jeff Okudah was responsible for guarding Jefferson and had an excellent performance.

Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn highlighted how it’s hard to limit Jefferson because of his ability to move around the formation before the snap.

“They move him around a lot,” Glenn said. “It’s just the fact that he beats double teams. That’s just what it is. So if you’re not locked in, like every play on this player, he’s going to beat you. He understands how to beat those double teams. We talked to our guys about leverage and understanding what this game plan is about.”

Okudah only allowed five catches for 43 yards in the first game against the Vikings. Jefferson finished the game with just three receptions for 14 yards, the worst performance of his season. However, Minnesota was more effective at taking advantage of other matchups in the second game between those two teams. Jefferson was highly efficient, beating players like Mike Hughes, Amani Oruwariye, and Jerry Jacobs. The Vikings still only scored 24 points, but Jefferson had 11 receptions for 223 yards, his best performance in 2022.

Dallas Cowboys

Trevon Diggs was effective against Justin Jefferson, allowing only two catches for 19 yards, plus one forced incompletion. But this matchup wasn’t exactly why Jefferson had only three catches for 33 yards in that game. The Cowboys used man coverage on only 22.5% of their defensive plays, below their season average of 27.9% and well below what they did in the previous week against the Green Bay Packers (68%).

The secret was that the Cowboys didn’t even allow the Vikings to target Jefferson — Cousins threw to No. 18 just five times, his lowest number of the entire season (his average is 11.6 targets per game). The reason was the pass rush. Dallas sacked Cousins seven times (tied for his career high), which forced him to have his second-worst passer rating of the year (64.6). Micah Parsons alone had five pressures and two sacks.

“Kirk getting sacked before you’re even getting out of the break is definitely being in a tough situation,” Jefferson mentioned after the loss. “We’ve just got to move toward a more quick game, getting the ball out quicker, just putting the ball in space and letting people work.”

New York Jets

The Jets are also in the bottom 10 in zone coverage usage, relying on a 4-3 under and the classic Seattle cover 3. However, head coach Robert Saleh has mixed coverages since his final year as the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator. Rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner, who should win the defensive rookie of the year award, was highly effective guarding Jefferson. Even when the receiver got the ball, it wasn’t easy.

But the Jets don’t make their cornerbacks follow receivers, so D.J. Reed was also a huge part of the plan. It mostly worked, but Jefferson had an important touchdown in the second half against Reed, and the Vikings won 27-22. Like the 49ers, the Jets defense relies heavily on its pass rush to alleviate the secondary. And a well-coached secondary was able to limit Jefferson’s production even without a top corner covering him all the time.

There are different ways to try and limit Justin Jefferson. However, without Rashan Gary, the Green Bay Packers can’t rely on its pass rush to get fast on Kirk Cousins as the Dallas Cowboys did. Therefore, the Packers must be more aggressive on the back end, challenge Jefferson’s routes at the line of scrimmage, and use top cornerback Jaire Alexander to shallow the top receiver. It makes no sense to pay Jaire a top contract and make him guard K.J. Osborn while Jefferson is tearing Rasul Douglas or a backup cornerback apart.

This will obviously be a challenging matchup, regardless. But the Packers have to be able to adapt if they want to be the best version of themselves in a must-win game.

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