As receiver Justin Jefferson's tear through the NFL starts to garner questions about his MVP candidacy, the next opponent standing in his way is another young phenom in Jets cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and a strong New York defense.
Gardner hasn't yet shadowed an opponent's top receiver, so how often they match up on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium remains to be seen. But Jefferson said Thursday that he's looking forward to when they do — and he hopes it's just Gardner guarding him.
"He's a great corner," Jefferson said. "Long, fast, can play the ball in the air and play through the hands. I look forward to these matchups. ... But I'm confident in my game and in my skill set to win my battles. And hopefully we don't get too many double teams."
Gardner, the fourth overall draft pick in April out of Cincinnati, has lived up to expectations so far. He leads the league with 14 pass deflections and has not allowed a touchdown in coverage since Week 2, according to Pro Football Focus.
That's not too bad for a 22-year-old cornerback.
The 23-year-old Jefferson has ascended to another level, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Month for the second straight November on Thursday. Jefferson's connection with quarterback Kirk Cousins continues to be one of the most automatic league-wide. And they have ways around extra defensive attention, finding open areas against off coverage like they'll see against the Jets.
Cousins' timely 19-yard completion to Jefferson in Buffalo illustrated that.
In Jefferson's shadow?
Gardner echoed Jefferson's anticipation, saying, "These are the types of games I love. I love going against the best." But Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said he hasn't really seen Gardner travel with opposing top receivers since Jets head coach Robert Saleh's defense has been heavy in zone coverages.
"They're not showing you a lot of man coverage," Phillips said. "They generally kind of anchor the corners [to each side] in this scheme and kind of make it challenging that way, recognizing different coverages."
Gardner typically aligns as the left cornerback — the offense's right side — in the Jets defense. But quarterbacks have recently been looking away from him. His dip in production, with just one deflection in the last four games, comes as he's seen just 13 passes, per Pro Football Focus.
New York's other outside corner, D.J. Reed, has played even better than Gardner.
Reed has been rated as one of the NFL's best in zone coverage so far. After Bills receiver Stefon Diggs beat Gardner with a double move on a 42-yard grab during the Jets' 20-17 win against Buffalo last month, Jets coaches had Reed shadow Diggs. It was the only throw Josh Allen completed that traveled over 20 yards in the air, per PFF.
But Jets corners normally stick to their sides.
"When you got two dominant corners, you really don't have to [shadow receivers]," Gardner said. "We don't be stressing about anything. We've been holding on this whole season."
The Jets will sell out to stop the aerial attack.
Saleh, the former 49ers defensive coordinator, has previously run almost exclusive two-high safety coverages to take away downfield passing games. After a 40-17 loss to the Jets in October, Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel told Miami reporters his offense didn't see a "single safety defense until the second half."
Against the Dolphins, the Jets' pass rush and coverage worked together to help Gardner get his first NFL interception.
'He doesn't care who'
Rare physical gifts and a stellar college career made Gardner the second corner selected at the top of this year's NFL Draft. He's a tall, 6-foot-3-inch defender with 4.4-second speed. He is one of the only corners Jefferson will face with longer arms, which help the Jets rookie reroute receivers and disrupt throws.
That could make Gardner on Jefferson the Jets' preferred matchup. Reed, the other outside corner, is trusted enough to shadow Diggs, but he's smaller at 5-foot-9.
In Gardner, Vikings coaches see a rookie unfazed by whatever he's faced.
"He hasn't really shown that he needs any acclimation period," Phillips said. "He gets up there, he's confident. He doesn't care who's in front of him. And he's got the kind of length to recover and kind of hold guys up at the line of scrimmage."
Whether Jets corners play aggressive or off coverage, they'll typically have both safeties deep and invite underneath or intermediate throws. They haven't given up much deep in the last five games, allowing just four completions on the last 24 throws at least 20 yards downfield, according to PFF.
"They've been doing great the whole season," Jefferson said. "They haven't really let anybody go up top big on them the whole season, so going into the game we know that. We know our strengths and I feel like we have a good game plan."
In off coverage, Gardner is nimble enough to navigate double moves and drive downhill on the ball like he did against Packers receiver Romeo Doubs in the Jets' Oct. 16 win.