Vikings Play of the Week: Defining the Justin Jefferson role vs. the Packers
Against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, we finally learned how Justin Jefferson is going to be used by the Minnesota Vikings in their new offense.
Minnesota Vikings fans finally got to see Kevin O’Connell’s new offensive system up close and in person in the team’s Week 1 win over the Green Bay Packers this past Sunday.
This included what the role of Vikings star wide receiver Justin Jefferson in the new offense will look like this season.
There was speculation amongst fans and NFL insiders alike that Jefferson would have a prominent role in Minnesota’s offense similar to what Cooper Kupp’s role looks like with the Los Angeles Rams. It is no longer a secret what Jefferson’s role looks like. In short, it is a lot.
How exactly does the new role of Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson work?
Part of the reason for the success that the Vikings had in Week 1 and for the success that Kupp has had with the Rams is due to the personnel used.
Los Angeles famously lead the league last season in “11-personnel,” which is defined as having three receivers, one running back, and one tight end out on the field for a play. This allows the offense to spread the field out and force the defense to play with more defensive backs in order to match up with the receivers.
This personnel grouping also allows the Rams (and the Vikings) to run the ball effectively as we saw in Week 1 when Minnesota ran for an incredibly efficient 126 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
What makes Jefferson’s new role so difficult to defend is the high volume and variety of ways in which he can be utilized.
Last season, Jefferson spent 75 percent of his snaps lined up on the outside, which limited the number of ways that the Vikings could utilize him in their offense.
Minnesota also used 11-personnel on just 47 percent of their snaps last year, good for fifth-lowest in the NFL. For a team whose receivers are the strongest position group on their offense, the Vikings were using three wide receiver sets at one of the lowest rates in the league under former head coach Mike Zimmer.
What we saw on Sunday was just the opposite as Minnesota moved Jefferson all over the field. During his college career at LSU, Jefferson was utilized in the slot very frequently, and while he is very capable of dominating on the outside, the Vikings were able to get him back to where he is most comfortable.
This not only allowed Minnesota to throw the kitchen sink at their opponent, but it also allowed Jefferson to get back to his comfort zone where he had so much success for LSU.
Take the first drive of the game for example, when Jefferson picked up 22 yards on a 2nd-and-5 play to help set up his first touchdown a few plays later. The Vikings came out in empty formation with Adam Thielen lined up as the outside receiver, leaving Jefferson in the slot.
Because of the way the Vikings were able to stretch the field out in empty, the Packers were forced to spread their defense out, and they played quarters coverage, meaning that they dropped both corners and both safeties to break the deep part of the field up into four different quarters of zone coverage.
On the outside, Thielen ran a simple go-route, which forced the corner and the safety on his side of the field to “carry” him, meaning they had to run deep with him to cover him.
This left Jefferson wide open on the out route as the linebacker could not match up with him and carry him to the flat, leading to a big catch and run for Minnesota’s top receiver.
That is the beauty of playing Jefferson in the slot. It creates favorable mismatches because he is likely going to be 1-on-1 more often as the safeties have to respect the outside receiver over the top. Jefferson is also less likely to be matched up with a team’s top corner when he’s in the slot and he can “hide” in different formations.
This leads into our Play of the Day from Minnesota’s Week 1 win that further defines what Jefferson’s role will look like in the team’s new offense this season.
Following a crucial fourth-down stop where Vikings outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith wrapped up Packers running back AJ Dillon on the goal line, Minnesota came right back and kicked a field goal to go up 10-0 over Green Bay. The field goal for the Vikings was set up in large part by a 64-yard pass from Cousins to Jefferson.
The play had everything that will define Minnesota’s offense this year. The Vikings came out in their 11-personnel package with Cousins under center and Jefferson in the slot. The Packers sat back in their quarters coverage again, and the Vikings had the perfect attack for it.
The outside receivers, Thielen and K.J. Osborn both ran choice routes meaning that they were on a go route but had the choice to break it off into a curl based on the cushion they were getting from the defensive backs.
The Vikings then ran play action to freeze the Green Bay linebackers, which allowed Minnesota tight end Irv Smith Jr. to get behind the linebackers and occupy the strong safety. This took the strong safety’s eyes away from Jefferson, who ran a post out of the slot to the field side of the formation. Because the safety’s eyes were occupied by Smith, Jefferson was able to get behind him while staying in front of the free safety.
Cousins deserves credit here for doing a phenomenal job climbing the pocket and throwing Jefferson open.
Part of the reason this was such a big play was because Cousins flattened Jefferson out which allowed him to stay in between the two safeties. Any deeper of a throw and the free safety would have had a shot to make a play. Any shorter, and the strong safety would have been able to recover.
The perfect storm of play calling, execution, and most importantly, having players in the right positions earn the 64-yard gain to Jefferson as our Vikings Play of the Week for Week 1.
We can expect to see a lot more of these types of big plays out of Jefferson this season as O’Connell continues to move the star wide receiver around the field. How will Week 1’s success open up the playbook going forward?
We will find out next Monday night in Philadelphia.