ARIZONA CARDINALS

Cardinals not changing approach to account for ‘elite’ WR Justin Jefferson

Oct 27, 2022, 7:09 PM | Updated: 7:41 pm
Justin Jefferson #18 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrates with Alexander Mattison #25 after catching...
Justin Jefferson #18 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrates with Alexander Mattison #25 after catching a touchdown pass against the Arizona Cardinals in the second quarter of the game at State Farm Stadium on September 19, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

TEMPE — Nearly 31% of the Minnesota Vikings’ scrimmage yards this season have been produced by Justin Jefferson, the 23-year-old receiver coming off back-to-back Pro Bowls to start his career.

The Arizona Cardinals have faced him once before, in Week 2 of last season, and the young target reeled in six balls for 65 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s a great player, a guy who can run all the intermediate routes, post balls, also comes out of the backfield and runs routes, as well,” safety Budda Baker said. “All-around type of guy.”

The Cardinals head to Minnesota on Sunday, and the defense’s ability to keep Jefferson away from big-chunk plays could be a deciding factor.

However, while defensive coordinator Vance Joseph called Jefferson a special player, he doesn’t look at him differently than other top receivers Arizona has seen this year.

“By numbers, he’s getting the ball two-to-one to the second guy,” Joseph said. “So, it’s no different to Cooper Kupp or (Devante) Adams or the big guy in Seattle (DK Metcalf). … He’s a special player and he’s been that way for three straight years.

“We saw him last year, he made some plays last year. … Obviously the plan is always to keep those guys from hurting us.”

This year, Jefferson has been targeted more often in new head coach Kevin O’Connell’s system, as the former LSU Tiger is on pace to set career bests in catches per game (7.7), average yards after the catch (6.5) and catch percentage (73%).

Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury sees some DeAndre Hopkins in Jefferson’s ability to line up everywhere and produce on a down-to-down basis.

When asked about Minnesota’s “kind of” elite receiver, Kingsbury cut in and said there’s no “kind of.”

“He’s all the way elite,” Kingsbury said. “They move him around. Like Hop, he can be on the outside and burn you on a go route or put him inside on an option route.

“I mean, I think that the versatility of both those guys is unique. Great route runners, great hands, very competitive. There’s some similarities there for sure.”

Opponents have played a lot of zone coverage (82.4%) against the Vikings to limit Jefferson’s opportunities one-on-one.

The Cardinals are one of the league’s zone-heaviest teams.

Arizona has been stout at limiting star receivers on opposing sides this season. In Week 6, Metcalf caught two passes on seven targets for 34 yards. The week prior, Philadelphia Eagles’ A.J. Brown finished with three catches. Even Kupp, the receptions leader last season, only reeled in four grabs in Week 3 against Arizona.

The Cardinals’ defense has had lapses, like last week allowing 34 points against the New Orleans Saints, but it has kept Arizona alive in many games in part thanks to its ability to limit the home run hitters.

Joseph’s outlook on this matchup does not change for one player.

“Every week, it’s the same in this league, and everyone’s got players,” Joseph said. “Everyone’s got a big-time (running) back and couple of receivers and a quarterback that’s playing well.

“So for us, it’s the same as the Rams, Seattle, the same as the Chiefs, same as the Raiders. So for us, it’s no different. It’s having a plan to stop what they do best and live with the rest.”

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