Justin Jefferson has had a record breaking season. It alllll started way back when in a huge game against our favorite friends from Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers. In that game, Jefferson had space to roam around against off zone coverages. When Jefferson was in the slot, he found himself matched up against someone who had no chance of stopping his choice routes. In Week 2, the Eagles had an entirely different plan for the Vikings superstar. Jefferson saw brackets, tight man coverage, and the Eagles forced other players to make plays on the way to a blow out win.
Going into Week 17 at Lambeau Field, the biggest question that faced Joe Barry and a resurgent Packers defense was how to deal with #18. Instead of repeating their plan form Week 1, Barry took a page out of the Eagles playbook and fought back on defense.
The Packers gameplan appeared to be based on where Jefferson was lined up on the field. Different alignments led to different double teams, and different formations led to different coverages. Jaire Alexander followed Jefferson for many snaps and often had help from another player in the secondary.
Solo man coverage is extremely difficult. The rules of the game, as well as the continuing improvement of wide receivers, make it difficult to cover a threat working all the way across the entire field. One way to mitigate this stress is to have a help defender. There are different ways to do this and the Packers chose something closer to a true double team. In the clip below, Alexander had help from a safety coming down to his side. This allows the Packers to leverage Jefferson inside and outside. With Jefferson crossed off, another player on the field would have to make a play:
Thread of a few different ways the Packers played Justin Jefferson:
-Press man with down safety bracketing inside (here)
– Press man with safety over the top
-Getting hands on and clouding Jefferson in the zone pic.twitter.com/fitr0r5LPv
— Shawn (@syedschemes) January 2, 2023
The Packers also made sure to have two sets of eyes on Jefferson when he was isolated. Here, Jefferson had a cornerback in his face as well as a safety to help on any over the top or inside breaking routes. The Vikings like to run Jefferson on intermediate dig routes on the back side of concepts, so this call was helpful to erase that:
Disruption was the theme for the Packers in Week 17 (and also was a funny part of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery on Netflix now!). Getting hands on receivers is not always easy, but creating disruption in route timing is a huge positive for the defense. Routes are generally timed to the Quarterback’s drop, and the few seconds Kirk Cousins has to throw the ball evaporate as the rush bears down. The Packers were sure to muddy routes in their zone coverage to create issues for the Vikings:
Justin Jefferson is an incredible receiver who demands the utmost attention of the defense. One way to challenge the Vikings offense is to double team Jefferson in some way and force other receivers to make plays. My favorite defensive axiom is “stop their best and live with the rest.” The Eagles and the Packers did just that. It is not a foolproof blueprint as Jefferson was still able to draw holding flags and run specific routes away from double teams against the Lions, but it gives the defense a fighting chance.
The Vikings responded later in the game by having Justin Jefferson go in jet motion to mess with how the defense wanted to play him, but it was too late. The Vikings may end up turning to different stacks and bunches to try and increase the chances Jefferson gets a free release. If a defense allocates this many resources to a single player, other players are then in true 1 on 1s or in matchups that might be favorable. Whoever the Vikings end up facing in the playoffs will watch this film and the Eagles film and may come to a similar conclusion on how to deal with the NFC North champions.