Justin Jefferson can be stopped, apparently. We found that out the hard way in Green Bay on Sunday.
Of course, Jefferson has had bad games before, and he doesn’t always torch defenses, but this was a complete shutdown. But I don’t blame Jefferson. The Packers came into this game with a defense plan which involved shutting down Jefferson, no matter what it took.
Whether that was Jaire Alexander and a safety on him, or Alexander and two safeties, or Alexander with a safety over the top and a linebacker on the inside, it was clear on Sunday the Green Bay Packers were not going to let Justin Jefferson beat them.
When you have an incredible pass rusher, and your opponents double and triple him, what do you need? You need the rest of your defensive line to step up.
Vikings Need a WR2. Badly.
Well, when the Packers are devoting massive defensive resources to stopping Jefferson, what do the Vikings need? They need their weapons to step up, which simply did not happen.
Not only was this the case for Minnesota on Sunday, but it’s been the case for Minnesota all season. As Jefferson goes, so goes the offense. Against Philadelphia, Jefferson struggled, and the offense managed only seven points. Against Dallas, Jefferson put up barely any production. although this was primarily due to an inept offensive line performance –- and Minnesota put up three points.
Then, here in Green Bay, the Packers did everything they could to shut down Jefferson, and the offense had three points –= off a punt block that gave them field position at the 1-yard line -– until garbage time.
Minnesota’s Weapons Just Aren’t Enough
T.J. Hockenson was supposed to fix this issue, but when the Vikings needed him on Sunday, he was either slipping on the turf, failing to box out defenders, dropping passes, or achieving minimal separation.
Adam Thielen was supposed to be an upper-echelon #2 to Jefferson coming into the year, but he has looked much slower than usual. He has been unable to replicate anywhere near his career performance on contested catches. When a receiver struggles to separate, struggles to get YAC –- Thielen is ranked 4th worst in the NFL in YAC over expected among qualifying receivers per NextGen Stats -– and struggles to win on contested balls, he just simply isn’t a viable #2 anymore.
Thielen still has a place on this team, but that place is as a reliable possession receiver and red zone threat, and for an offense that aspires to be one of the best in the NFL, that’s not good enough for your number two receiver.
K.J. Osborn was a guy that many thought could make a jump to a reliable #2, and while he may be well on his way, he is not nearly at that level yet.
Need an Elite Threat to Complement Jefferson
Among the top teams in the NFL, some of the #2 receivers on the best teams are players like Jaylen Waddle, Tee Higgins, Chris Godwin, Devonta Smith, and Brandon Aiyuk. Players like these make it extremely dangerous to devote a lot of defensive resources to a team’s #1 receiver because all of these players can go off for huge games.
Minnesota needs a weapon similar in quality to these threats to take the pressure and attention off of Justin Jefferson. If they don’t find that piece, then anyone capable of shutting down Jefferson will shut down the Vikings offense. And for a team with an offensive-minded head coach in Kevin O’Connell, a capable QB in Kirk Cousins, and a superstar receiver in Justin Jefferson, that is not acceptable.
The Plan Going Forward
So, what will Kwesi Adofo-Mensah do?
Many mock-drafted Alabama WR Jameson Williams to Minnesota in the 2022 draft, but Vikings wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell passionately implored Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings front office not to select a receiver early, preaching faith in the men currently in the room.
Instead, they traded back with Detroit and selected Lewis Cine in the first round, plus Andrew Booth and Ed Ingram in the 2nd. They did not pick a wide receiver until the 6th round, where they selected Jalen Nailor. Down the road, Nailor might be useful. He certainly looked the part on Sunday -– albeit in garbage time.
But regardless of what happens over the remainder of the season, receiver is a massive need for Minnesota, which will require enormous attention.
Whether that need is filled via a trade, the draft, or free agency, Minnesota absolutely cannot go into the 2023 season without upgrading at the wide receiver position, not if they want to take the next step as contenders under Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell.