There's no dispute among the parties involved: The Vikings need to get Justin Jefferson the ball more.
In the span of three games, Jefferson went from a career-high 184 receiving yards against the Packers to a career-low 14 yards in Sunday's 28-24 win against the Lions. The Vikings achieved the ultimate goal of winning both games, but coach Kevin O'Connell knows their chances of winning increase if the ball is in Jefferson's hands.
"The way we were able to get Adam [Thielen] and K.J. [Osborn] and some of these other guys opps in the passing game is because of Justin Jefferson dictating a lot of coverage, dictating how runs are fit, dictating how they play on the edges," O'Connell said.
"But that's not good enough," he added. "I've got to do a better job getting Justin lining up in different spots and personnel groupings – whatever I need to do to help. Because he's an ultra-competitor, and we'll get him going."
Many factors shrouded Jefferson on Sunday. His first target was batted at the line. His second was dropped. The Lions used cornerback Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, to follow Jefferson and play physical coverage with frequent safety help over the top. Detroit bracketed him on an early third down. He was later surrounded by three Lions defenders in the end zone. O'Connell, who said he had "a lot of respect for how Justin handled" the unproductive day, talked with his star receiver through the game.
"Yeah, for sure it's frustrating," Jefferson said. "But I asked for it. Just playing the way I've been playing. Just being the type of player that I am. Those double teams and triple teams are going to come, but that's the luxury of having Adam and K.J. on the other side. Even [Reagor] over here. So our receiving core is deep. Even when they want to double-team me, I know somebody's going to be open. So that's the luxury we have."
On the third-and-5 play below, Jefferson is bracketed by Okudah (#1) and safety DeShon Elliott (#5) while Osborn and Thielen are solo covered. Cousins doesn't like any of his options and throws it away, leading to a punt. Jefferson releases from a bunch formation that gives him a free run off the line, but the Lions had a bracket set up.
"I think he had eight or nine total snaps in the game where he didn't have like some variation of a double," O'Connell said. "Not all doubles are the same. I thought they tried to be very physical with him at the line of scrimmage almost to a point where a couple a times they were flagged for throwing him on the ground and things like that."
But O'Connell and Cousins found ways to leverage the attention the Lions were consistently giving Jefferson. During Thielen's 1-yard touchdown catch, the Lions appear to bust a coverage when Okudah followed Jefferson in motion across the formation while cornerback Amani Oruwariye also stayed on that side to cover Jefferson, leaving Thielen uncovered.
Later in the second quarter, the Vikings convert a fourth-and-6 play on this throw to Thielen. Jefferson (#18) runs a corner route that sets up Thielen (#19) on a hitch at the marker. The Lions appear to run a zone defense at the first-down line, but Okudah backpedals to cover Jefferson underneath deep safety help. That leaves Thielen alone on a linebacker dropping from the line of scrimmage into a zone.
Jefferson doesn't want his second straight quiet game to become a trend, but he knows the defensive attention will continue.
"Of course I want the ball," Jefferson said. "Of course I want to be a playmaker, do stuff for my team. But when that stuff comes, I can't really do too much about it. I mean, just listening to the play calls, doing what I'm told, and K.J. and Adam getting wide open because they're getting those one-on-one coverages. So, it's definitely good to see them winning their battles and we're going to keep doing this throughout the season."