The Vikings' coming bye week will "definitely go into the decision" on whether receiver Justin Jefferson returns on Monday night against the Bears or misses a seventh game and gets an extra week of recovery time, head coach Kevin O'Connell said Monday.
"Knowing you have the bye and knowing five critical opportunities to come after that bye, we do have to be smart," O'Connell said. "This is a player that means a ton to our organization both for this home stretch to try to solidify our positioning in the playoffs and still try to compete in the division as much as we possibly can, [and] Justin means a lot more than just these five or six games, as critical as they are. His long-term career here is the priority."
During Sunday night's 21-20 loss to the Broncos, NBC sideline reporter Melissa Stark relayed that Jefferson said he "didn't have the full speed and endurance right now to last a full game." Jefferson, who has run an average of 40 routes per game this season, has not played since straining his right hamstring in the Oct. 8 loss to the Chiefs.
While Jefferson has practiced for two weeks, he has yet to log a full session. The Vikings will continue to ramp up his practice reps this week, O'Connell said, and see how he feels afterward. Jefferson said last week he'll return when there's no soreness in his hamstring. The Vikings' next game after Monday night against Chicago is Dec. 10 against the Raiders in Las Vegas.
O'Connell was asked whether the loss in Denver expedites the plans with Jefferson.
"With his impact for our team, there's been some real urgency throughout this whole process," O'Connell said. "But also with a mindset on being smart and making sure that he feels as good as possible."
Jackson suspended four games
The NFL suspended Broncos safety Kareem Jackson four games without pay, citing a helmet-to-helmet hit on Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs in the first quarter of Sunday night's loss. Dobbs was pulled from the game by an independent spotter and evaluated for a concussion. He was cleared to return and did not miss a snap.
In a letter to Jackson, Jon Runyan, NFL vice president of football operations, wrote, "you lowered your head and made forcible contact" to Dobbs in a repeated violation. Jackson had returned Sunday night from a two-game suspension that stemmed from two ejections for illegal hits.
Jackson's hit was not flagged by officials. But the NFL has been heavily policing helmet-to-helmet hits afterward by fining players. Saints and Falcons defenders were fined for hits to Vikings players in recent weeks. Safeties Harrison Smith and Josh Metellus are among the Vikings defenders who have been fined for helmet-to-helmet hits.
'Develop in real time'
Cornerback Akayleb Evans said last week he will "for sure" play against the Bears. O'Connell said Monday that's a possibility after Evans' absence was felt in Denver. Evans is recovering from a strained right calf and continued to rehab through the weekend, O'Connell said. Rookie cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, listed at 5-11, replaced Evans and was on the losing end of a late touchdown catch by 6-4 Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton.
"Sometimes in this game it ends up being a size [matter]," O'Connell said, "and kind of the location of the football thrown by Russell [Wilson] where Courtland went up and got it and made a play."
"It'll be a good learning experience for Mekhi," the coach added. "But there were some other [chances] in the game where he was very competitive against really good receivers. ... We're still in a world where we're asking a lot of young players to develop in real time."
Lowry headed to IR
Defensive lineman Dean Lowry suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the second quarter and will undergo surgery, O'Connell said Monday. Lowry underwent an MRI that confirmed the chest injury Lowry suffered when reaching for Broncos running back Javonte Williams.
Lowry, 29, signed a two-year deal worth up to $8.5 million this offseason. The former Packers defender had 14 tackles (four solo), a pass deflection and a fumble recovery in nine games. He's the second Vikings defensive tackle on injured reserve, joining James Lynch, who suffered a torn ACL this summer.
Linebacker Anthony Barr, who re-signed with the Vikings last week, played 12 defensive snaps in his first game since Jan. 22. Rookie Ivan Pace Jr. replaced the injured Jordan Hicks as the defensive signal caller. "It was probably as smooth as it was going to be," O'Connell said. "Jordan has been extremely critical."