Packers let Vikings' Justin Jefferson dominate, don't match Jaire Alexander with him
MINNEAPOLIS – There should have been a neon sign flashing across his chest the moment Justin Jefferson arrived at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Written in all caps.
It’s the one thing the Green Bay Packers defense knew it had to do in their opener at the Minnesota Vikings. Last time they crossed their state’s western border, Jefferson erupted for more than 100 yards in the first half. The Vikings won that game. Another eruption from one of the NFL’s top receivers couldn’t happen again.
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It wasn’t supposed to happen again either. Not against this secondary, because there was one major addition this secondary had that last year’s lacked, and that was Jaire Alexander. Well before the 2022 season kicked off, Alexander made clear he wanted to line up across from Jefferson as often as possible. He needed to cover Jefferson every chance he got. It gets awfully boring shutting down half the field when no quarterback dare challenge him with a throw.
If Jefferson is a queen on the Vikings chess board, moving every which way across the formation before the football is snapped, Alexander gave the Packers a piece to match.
"The game plan," Alexander told reporters in the locker room, "was to not allow 18 to beat us. Why I wasn't on him, that's not my call. Anybody watch me play, you know that's what I want."
Instead, the Packers kept their queen piece in their pocket during a 23-7 loss to the Vikings, never adjusting while they allowed Jefferson to wreck their 2022 opener by himself. The two-time Pro Bowler caught nine of his 11 targets for 184 yards and two first-half touchdowns, giving the Vikings a 17-0 halftime lead.
Jefferson was the Vikings' passing offense. When throwing to his top receiver, quarterback Kirk Cousins had a perfect 158.3 rating. He had a 76.09 rating in 21 passes thrown to anyone else.
Anyone else was usually covered by Alexander. Everyone else on the Packers defense tried slowing Jefferson. Cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas. Safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage. Outside linebacker Preston Smith. Inside linebacker Quay Walker. Each failed to stop the wideout Alexander was best equipped to cover.
“It doesn’t necessarily always work that way,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “If you just commit to playing man coverage all game, sure, you can do it. But they do a nice job of putting him in different positions, whether it’s in the slot, whether it’s motioning. It seemed like he was in motion quite a bit, just moving him all over the place. You’ve got to give him credit.
“They put him in premier spots and attacked our coverage well, and certainly we had a couple blown coverages as well where we were cutting him loose. If there’s anybody you don’t want to cut loose, it’s number 18.”
In the visitors’ locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Packers secondary was a mix of dazed and embarrassed. It wasn’t merely that Jefferson got his catches and yards, or found the end zone. In this league, elite wideouts put up numbers. Davante Adams had 10 catches, 141 yards and a score in his debut for the Las Vegas Raiders. Cooper Kupp had 13 catches, 128 yards and a score against the Buffalo Bills. Stefon Diggs had nine catches, 122 yards and a score against the Los Angeles Rams.
Jefferson had more yards and touchdowns than all of them, leading the NFL in receiving after the league’s opening Sunday, because the Packers made his Week 1 alarmingly easy. On his first touchdown, Jefferson motioned from the left side of the field to the right, confusing the Packers defense. Stokes was the closest defender to him, about 5 yards away, allowing an easy 5-yard catch on fourth-and-1.
Stokes turned and looked back at his defense after the play, as if he was searching for help. He didn’t have any.
“That’s just embarrassing on our end,” Stokes said. “That’s something we pride ourselves on. We knew as he was coming in all the stuff he still did, everything he did. That’s just embarrassing on our end.”
Jefferson’s second touchdown was even worse. From the left slot, the one receiver that needed to be covered cut across the field to an open patch of turf, catching his quarterback’s attention. Amos and Savage cut the other way, leaving Jefferson all alone.
Amos wouldn’t say afterward who was supposed to cover Jefferson. His 36-yard touchdown might have been the easiest catch of his career. He could not have been more wide open.
“It just shows you the magnitude of the real season," Amos said. "When you bust two times, that’s two big plays, that can be the change in the whole game. We pride ourselves on not making those types of mistakes, and when you do that, this is the result. That’s what happened, and we got the result that we earned out there. We earned that loss out there.
“If we were on him when we were supposed to be on him, he wouldn’t have made the plays. But a lot of his catches were uncontested, and he caught balls that he shouldn’t have.”
The Packers were far from panic mode after their second straight lopsided loss in a season opener. They learned a year ago how little Week 1 matters over the course of a long NFL season, getting blown out 38-3 to the New Orleans Saints only to clinch the NFC’s top overall seed before Week 18. The defense leaned on that experience after this game. Stokes said Sunday felt a bit like déjà vu.
“Right at the end, when the (clock) went off,” Stokes said, “I was like, ‘This is basically like last year.’ ”
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The blowout wasn’t the only déjà vu though. If the outcome of an opener doesn’t reveal much for what a team might be during the course of a season, the Packers had at least one disconcerting lesson Sunday. Jefferson has 17 catches, 353 yards and four touchdowns in his past two home games against the Packers. They need to cover him, but can’t.
Best believe Alexander will want his shot when these two teams meet later in the season. And Jefferson will be just fine if the Packers recycle the game plan that failed Sunday.
“That's the thing I like about our offense," Jefferson said. "We move so much, we have so many players on our offense, you can't stick to one player."