The New York Giants have the unfortunate task of trying to defend Minnesota Vikings’ wide receiver Justin Jefferson in Week 16. The third-year wide receiver out of LSU leads the NFL in receptions (111), targets (158), yards (1,623), and explosive plays of 20 yards or more (26).
Jefferson is the catalyst to the eighth-highest-scoring offense in the league; Minnesota averages 25.1 points per game. Minnesota’s passing offense is led by quarterback Kirk Cousins, who averages 259.2 passing yards per game with the third-highest amount of passing attempts.
Defending Jefferson is arguably the tallest task Giants’ defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has undertaken this season. Jefferson can win at all three levels of the field and on the line of scrimmage with a diverse and smooth release package.
Giants coach Brian Daboll was asked about Jefferson, and he praised the young player’s versatility.
“He’s extremely talented. He’s got good quickness, good body control, can run any route. They line him up all over the place,” Daboll said. “I think they do a great job with him. He’s hard to cover in man. He’s got great awareness in zone. He’s good after the catch. He can make contested catches. He’s a problem.”
Here are five plays, and play archetypes, that make Jefferson a danger for defenses.
Play(s) 1: Double coverage, no problem!
Martindale used Cloud and Bracket coverage concepts over Washington’s Terry McLaurin in Week 15, much more than they did in Week 13. McLaurin found little operating room. Teams have attempted to do the same against Jefferson all season — it has not mattered much.
The Lions held Jefferson to three catches for 14 yards in Week 3. Jefferson was double-covered on almost every play, and Cousins looked elsewhere. However, in Week 14, the Lions still paid much attention to Jefferson, but he caught 11 passes for 223 yards.
No. 2 (inside) bottom of screen
Bottom of screen
New York will certainly look to allocate multiple defensive backs toward defending Jefferson; this could lead to more opportunities for Adam Thielen, K.J. Osbourn, or tight end T.J. Hockinson. However, it’s not certain that multiple defenders can stop Jefferson on any given play.
Play(s) 2: Short area route running
Jefferson’s route running is elite at all three levels of the field, but I want to focus on his ability to make defensive backs look silly against press and while up his initial route stem. If the Giants decide to press Jefferson, there will almost certainly be help over the top unless New York decides to send 7+ on the rush, in which they’d likely not press.
Jefferson scored one of the Vikings’ five second-half touchdowns en route to the biggest comeback in NFL history last week. The Vikings were down 33-0 before the game ended with a Vikings overtime win, 39-36. Jefferson sold the inside break so well that 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, who is still playing at a high level, was brutally fooled on third-and-2 for the third of the Vikings’ five touchdowns.
Justin Jefferson with a pretty fake return route for a TD pic.twitter.com/oopTg44MjW— Shawn (@syedschemes) December 17, 2022
The threat of Justin Jefferson stacking you and getting open deep has to be terrifying for a corner in press. And then he does this. pic.twitter.com/YaiY6qif5V— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) December 19, 2022
Will Ragatz of SI breaks down the threat of Jefferson winning behind defensive backs and how it causes indecision among cornerbacks aligned close to the line of scrimmage. The subtle throttle-down up the stem to sell a vertical route before swiftly curling for a first down showed Jefferson’s ability to give himself a little extra space.
Jefferson is so dangerous that any little movement can force defenders to abandon technique to ensure they’re not beaten deep. Jefferson understands how good he is, and he knows how to take advantage of good defenders because he is such a smart player.
(Bottom of screen)
The Miami Dolphins were caught in man coverage with a loose bunch at the bottom of the screen, and Jefferson was the No. 1 (outermost) receiver. The 23-year-old sold the inside release and forced panic into the cornerback, who frantically worked over the top and created a pick on his own teammate. When the defensive back realized what had happened, Jefferson was catching the football and accelerating toward the pylon.
Prime example of why Justin Jefferson is the best route runner in the league pic.twitter.com/eAEMpNHMKU— Josh Eccles (@realjeccles) December 13, 2022
Jefferson is also a master of disguise, and he routinely keeps defenders guessing as to his intentions.
“He can run anything you ask him to run,” Daboll said. “It’s hard to read him because he’s so good at the top of the route with his body control, his eyes, his head. He’s really good.”
Play(s) 3: Smart!
The nuance Jefferson displays as a route runner points to his high football intelligence, but he also understands how to manipulate coverages.
justin jefferson is so smart pic.twitter.com/t7P9ygYgfe— Luke Braun (@LukeBraunNFL) December 20, 2022
Luke Braun of Locked-on-Vikings did a good job explaining Jefferson’s comprehension of how defenses see the Vikings' offense and how Jefferson can exploit the defense’s film study. Jefferson sold the corner well on what ended up being a search route over the middle, but the fake on the corner opened up Osbourn’s route underneath, albeit Gilmore played it very well, while also providing Jefferson more space over the middle of the field.
Justin Jefferson sees Damar Hamlin attack the box immediately. You don’t need a kill shot!! Just enough to inconvenience the defender. The corner wants no part in tackling Dalvin Cook. This key block springs a TOUCHDOWN. pic.twitter.com/Omf8E2nySx— Tim Cortazzo (@T_Cortazzo) December 13, 2022
Tim Cortazzo had an excellent observation on this Dalvin Cook touchdown run from earlier in the month. The key block from Jefferson was a split-decision adjustment by the receiver to eliminate the safety, who quickly keyed the run.
Play(s) 4: Highlight reel plays
Like former Giants, and LSU star WR Odell Beckham Jr., Jefferson has sensational catches on his resume. He made one of the most incredible catches of the season against the Buffalo Bills, which helped lead Minnesota to a come-from-behind victory.
His concentration at the catch point gives him an opportunity to secure passes that normal -- talented — wide receivers may struggle to possess. Couple that with his yards after catch ability, and you have a recipe for offensive success, which is one of the many reasons why Cousins has targeted Jefferson a league-high 158 times.
Jefferson currently ranks fourth in the NFL in yards after the catch with 562. He’s first among wide receivers, but Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, and Travis Kelce are ahead of him; Chiefs running back Jerick McKinnon is just behind him with 484.
Play(s) 5: Toughness
Jefferson has zero fear of going over the middle of the field. He takes big shots and pops up and does his signature point. Here are several plays from 2022 where the 195-pound Jefferson absorbed a huge hit, and remained in the game to continue dominating. Jefferson left the game after the first clip, but was able to return.
Stephon Gilmore gets flagged for this hit on Justin Jefferson pic.twitter.com/cdSXtDxecg— Sean Borman (@SeanBormanNFL) December 17, 2022
There’s no easy way to defend Jefferson. He is a star, and the Giants could have a long day attempting to slow him down on Saturday. There are few wide receivers in the conversation with Jefferson, who is only ascending as a player.
When you combine top-tier athletic traits with intelligence, toughness, body control, contested catch ability, route-running nuance, and the savviness of a 10-year veteran, you get a generational type of talent. Jefferson is generational, and the Vikings selected him 22nd in the 2020 NFL Draft.