Late in the Vikings’ 28-24 victory over Detroit on Sunday, head coach Kevin O’Connell and star wide receiver Justin Jefferson had a talk on the sidelines. It had been a difficult game for Jefferson, and would remain so.
But don’t believe the stats, O’Connell said after the Vikings rallied to win on Kirk Cousins’ 28-yard touchdown pass to K.J. Osborn with 50 seconds remaining at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Justin had a huge impact on this game, it just didn’t show up on the stat sheet,” O’Connell said.
The Lions crowded, shoved and grabbed Jefferson — who had 196 catches for 3,016 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first two seasons — all day. He finished with three catches for a career-low 14 yards. And he was bummed.
“It’s frustrating, for sure,” he said afterward. “But I asked for it.”
Indeed. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound receiver out of LSU will be the focus of most, if not all opposing defenses for the rest of the season. He’s just that good. With Jefferson taken out of the offense, Adam Thielen (six catches, 61 yards and a touchdown) and Osborn (5-73-1) got the lion’s share of Cousins’ targets, which was enough to beat the Lions on Sunday.
Still, that’s not good enough, O’Connell said.
Jefferson’s presence may dictate the way a defense attacks Minnesota, and lead to success for teammates, but the Vikings need Jefferson doing what he does. In a season-opening victory over Green Bay, he caught nine passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns, averaging more than 20 yards a catch.
You don’t waste that as a decoy.
“I’ve got to do a better job getting Justin aspects of lining up in different spots and personnel groupings — whatever I need to do to help,” O’Connell said. “Because he’s an ultra-competitor, and we’ll get him going.”
“I have a lot of respect,” the coach added, “for how Justin handled today.”
It wasn’t easy.
“It’s definitely difficult to keep my cool during that moment,” Jefferson said. “Of course I want the ball. Of course I want to be a playmaker, do stuff for my team. But when that stuff comes, I can’t really do too much about it. I mean, just listening to the play calls, doing what I’m told, and K.J. and Adam getting wide open because they’re getting those one-on-one coverages.
“So it’s definitely good to see them winning their battles, and we’re going to keep doing this throughout the season.”
Osborn’s numbers were season-highs, and he broke free for a potential touchdown in the first half only to be overthrown by Cousins, who heaved his pass just before being leveled by a Lions defender. He has caught more than five passes just twice in a game in three pro seasons, the last time six receptions — including the winning touchdown — in a 34-27 victory at Carolina on Oct. 17, 2021.
Being targeted eight times on Sunday, he said, “felt amazing, man.”
“I read a book called ‘Chop Wood, Carry Water,’ ” Osborn added. Each play, keep chopping, keep chopping, play the next play and the ups and downs, keep fighting. I came out on top, we came out on top, and it feels good.”
Jefferson was one of the first players to greet Osborn after his touchdown.
“All of us are playmakers. All of us have that talent to really win in this league,” Jefferson said. “So, when I seen him open, it was a no-brainer. I expected that, and I’m definitely happy for him.”