EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The lack of involvement for Justin Jefferson was so glaring in Minnesota’s two recent losses that coach Mike Zimmer made a point to pull him aside last week and assure him the ball was coming his way.
Zimmer rather paternalistically asked Jefferson to promise to practice and study hard, as if there were any question about the effort and precision the Vikings would get from their star receiver.
The result of this renewed commitment was predictably positive, at a time when the Vikings needed it most. Kirk Cousins threw 11 passes to Jefferson in the 27-20 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, with nine completions for 143 yards.
Seven of them went for first downs. One third down attempt drew a pass interference penalty.
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Jefferson’s nickname is “Jet.” Just 25 games into his NFL career, it’s clear nobody can rev up the Vikings offense quite like him. In four games the Vikings have won this season, Jefferson has averaged 11 targets and 116 yards. In their five losses, he has averaged seven targets and 66 yards.
With 2,175 receiving yards in 25 games, Jefferson has the second most at this career point in the history of the NFL’s Super Bowl era that began in 1966. Only Odell Beckham Jr. (2,625) had more.
“I feel like any receiver would be a little frustrated, just wanting to be a big part of the offense, wanting to make big plays,” Jefferson said. “I really didn’t get that many opportunities the last games. This game stressed giving me the ball, giving me the opportunity to go up and make a play, and definitely grateful for that.”
Cousins threw 12 times on third or fourth downs against the Chargers. Five of those went to Jefferson and three to Adam Thielen.
“We made a kind of big adjustment during practice,” Jefferson said, “just giving the playmakers the ball whenever they need to.”
The big question for Cousins and offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak was why such accommodation was necessary in the first place. Dallas and Baltimore made concerted efforts to blanket Jefferson and Thielen with safeties, to be sure, and Cousins faced as much pressure in those games as he has all season. The play calling always factors into these trends, too.
Part of the issue, though, is the personality and tendency of the quarterback himself.
“I’m pretty methodical,” Cousins acknowledged on Sunday, essentially dismissing the notion that he’d taken a more aggressive approach to the game in Los Angeles.
As for targeting Jefferson?
“Most of the times I worked him, he was not doubled. Most of the times I didn’t work him, he was,” Cousins said. “So I guess they didn’t double him just enough to give us the opportunities to give him the ball. They were pretty intentional about putting a safety over the top of where he was lining up, and we had to get creative with the routes he would run, how we could still get him the football.”
Thielen, not to be forgotten in this discussion, had five catches for 65 yards on seven targets. In the overtime loss to the Ravens, he had only two receptions for 6 yards on seven targets, though one went for a touchdown.
Ultimately, given the proven accuracy and strength of his arm, the Vikings want Cousins to be more willing in certain spots to look for Jefferson and Thielen even when the coverage is tight.
“He’s a smart quarterback. He gives us the opportunity when he needs to,” Jefferson said. “He just needs to go out there and keep playing. Trust his guys, just like we trust him, and I think we’ll be pretty good.”
The play-it-safe dump-offs and check-downs in front of the sticks to the tight ends or the running backs don’t create a winning recipe over the course of a game. That’s certainly not how to beat first-place Green Bay on Sunday.
“I think it was a good showing of what the formula kind of has to be to win games,” Thielen said. “It’s a little bit of a different league nowadays. You have to be able to be aggressive, and you have to be able to convert in aggressive situations to win games.”
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