Packers' secondary rides 'emotional roller-coaster' trying to stop Justin Jefferson

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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MINNEAPOLIS – For a moment, it looked like the Green Bay Packers had the most unlikely of endings, the receiver who torched their secondary all day remembered more for one pass he did not catch. 

On the first snap of the final drive, safety Darnell Savage undercut Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins’ throw to the almost uncoverable Justin Jefferson down the right sideline. Savage played the football so well, he looked like the intended receiver, floating in front of Jefferson as he grabbed Cousins’ pass with both hands. 

It was ruled an interception, a game-changing play at the Green Bay 37-yard line, setting up the Packers with a short field to break a tie with 2 minutes left. The Packers' defense reacted like it had just won the game, understandable with Aaron Rodgers trotting onto the field, but a pesky camera angle got in the way. 

Green Bay Packers safety Darnell Savage (26) is called for pass interference while covering Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) during the first quarter of their game Sunday, November 21, 2021 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn. The Minnesota Vikings beat the Green Bay Packers 34-31.

Upon further review, Savage did not maintain control of the football all the way to the ground. Cousins’ pass instead bounced off the U.S. Bank Stadium turf, giving the Vikings second life. The defense remained on its heels for eight plays and 64 yards, until Vikings kicker Greg Joseph split the uprights with a 29-yard field goal as time expired, handing the Packers a 34-31 loss. 

“You’d love to survive the ground there,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of Savage’s near interception that wasn’t. “Unfortunately, he didn’t. That’s just the way it worked out.” 

LaFleur would have loved for his defense to survive Justin Jefferson at any point Sunday.

The Vikings' second-year receiver, a superstar already through only 26 career games, saved perhaps the best game of his career for a Packers team that badly wanted to draft him in the spring of 2020. Jefferson finished with eight catches for 169 yards, just seven from a new career high. He had two touchdowns for only the third time in his career. 

A year ago, it was Davante Adams going off on the Vikings inside an empty U.S. Bank Stadium, establishing the foundation for an All-Pro season while tying a franchise record with 14 catches for 156 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Adams, perhaps the game’s greatest receivers, did what he could to outshine Jefferson on Sunday. The veteran finished with seven catches on eight targets for 115 yards, including a 37-yard gain on the game’s first play. Adams had a pair of touchdowns, his second from 18 yards giving the Packers a 24-23 lead with 7:49 left in regulation.

Even still, Adams could not outdo Jefferson, who owned this day as much as he did the Packers' defense. 

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“He did not do what I expected him to do against us, but what he’s been doing pretty consistently. He’s a hell of a player. It’s fun to watch. I don’t want to watch it no more against us looking like that, but he’s a great player. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.” 

The Packers, who did not make a single defensive back available to be interviewed after Sunday’s game, were not surprised Jefferson had the capability of going off. The 22-year-old receiver welcomed that burden. Jefferson arrived at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday wearing a Randy Moss shirt. 

In these parts, that's the same as arriving to the stadium and announcing yourself a football deity before kickoff.

Jefferson has had that impact in his young career. He was a Pro Bowler last season with 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. If not for Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, Jefferson would have been rookie of the year. This season, Jefferson now has 63 catches for 944 yards and six touchdowns. He’s only 56 yards from his second 1,000-yard season in as many years, and Jefferson still has seven games to get there. 

It’s why the Packers were so keen on drafting Jefferson out of LSU in the first round of the 2020 draft. Instead, they selected Utah State quarterback Jordan Love four picks later. Until Sunday, Jefferson hadn’t showed what a pain he’ll be for the Packers in the NFC North. Jefferson combined for just five catches for 56 yards and no touchdowns in two games against them as a rookie. 

Sunday was dramatically different. 

"We just can't let him get hot,” outside linebacker Preston Smith said. “And he got hot.” 

The Packers have prevented some of the league’s top receivers from getting hot in recent weeks. They held Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill to four catches for 37 yards and no end-zone trips. Seattle’s DK Metcalf had just three catches for 26 yards last week. That game ended with Metcalf ejected and later fined, shoving Packers safety Henry Black in frustration. 

Jefferson was different. Then, at the end, it almost appeared the Packers would finally make a play. Savage soared in front of him, crashed down with the football on top of him, and an unlikely ending hung in the balance. 

Cousins later said his pass was not deep nor long enough to give his receiver a chance to catch it. Jefferson, who said he rolled his ankle on the play, quickly recognized he needed to convert into a defensive back. 

“I was really just trying to knock the ball out of his hands," Jefferson said, "but glad that he dropped it." 

Over on the bench, Cousins thought the game might be over. Rodgers had possession on the cusp of field-goal range. The NFL has seen how this movie ends plenty of times. 

Then that pesky camera angle ruined the Packers’ day. 

"Definitely an emotional roller coaster," Adams said. "That's a great way to explain it, especially at the end because we thought we had the ball back, it turns out it came out of his hands. Then they go back down and score. There were a lot of ups and downs at the end there." 

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