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Zulgad: It took long enough: Vikings rewarded for finally getting Justin Jefferson involved in offense

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Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) tries to break a tackle by Tennessee Titans inside linebacker Jayon Brown, right, during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS — So this is what a first-round wide receiver is supposed to look like? The ineptitude of the Vikings’ offense through two games raised many questions about offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s play calling, Kirk Cousins’ decisions at quarterback and on and on. One of the biggest was this: Where was Justin Jefferson?
We got the answer Sunday in the Vikings’ 31-30 loss to the Tennessee Titans at U.S. Bank Stadium and it raised numerous questions about why it took so long to incorporate him into the game plan? Jefferson proved he has been NFL ready since he arrived, catching seven passes for 175 yards with two touchdowns.
The highlight came in the third quarter when Cousins found Jefferson deep down the right side. Jefferson caught the ball around the Titans’ 38-yard line and then went to work in a play that brought back memories of Stefon Diggs. With cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who had been beaten on the play, in pursuit, Jefferson continued down the right side and then cut to the middle as safety Kenny Vacaro tripped over Joseph near the 17. Jefferson ended up celebrating his first career touchdown, while the Titans’ defensive backs wondered what happened.
That gave Jefferson seven catches for 175 yards. Surprisingly, that was his final reception of the day.

Jefferson’s performance fell short of breaking Sammy White’s rookie receiving record of 210 yards on seven catches and two touchdowns on Nov. 7, 1976 against the Lions at Met Stadium. It did surpass the yardage total for every game of Randy Moss’ marvelous rookie season in 1998, except his 198-yard Monday Night breakout performance on Nov. 5, 1998 at Green Bay.
What was mystifying was that Jefferson’s big game came after the rookie was targeted only three times and caught two passes for 26 yards in a 43-34 loss to Green Bay in Week 1 and then had three passes (all receptions) directed his way for 44 yards in another embarrassing loss, this time 28-11, in the Vikings’ loss last week at Indianapolis. Two of those catches came on Minnesota’s meaningless last drive of the fourth quarter. The Vikings’ lack of use of Jefferson qualified as football malpractice.
While Jefferson was being ignored, Cousins was looking for wide receiver Adam Thielen nearly every time he dropped back. Thielen entered Sunday’s game with 16 targets and nine receptions.
The Vikings’ intention never was to have Thielen turn into a one-man show. Diggs and Thielen had formed one of the top receiving combinations in the NFL in recent years and, with Diggs traded to Buffalo last offseason, the Vikings had taken Jefferson with the 22nd pick in the first round of April’s draft to have him do exactly what he did on Sunday.

Evidently, the folks in Eagan have realized that Jefferson isn’t the second coming of Laquon Treadwell. That might help save some jobs, considering how woeful the Vikings had looked getting off to their first 0-3 start since Mike Zimmer became coach in 2014.
Jefferson caught six of the seven passes Cousins directed his way in the opening half for 104 yards against the Titans. Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook were next with three targets apiece. The Vikings offense, which had scored on its opening two possessions of the first two games before pulling a disappearing act, got off to a brutal start this time after the Titans’ six-play, 54-yard first drive had resulted in a Stephen Gostkowski 39-yard field goal.
Cook ran for 2 yards on Minnesota’s first play from scrimmage, Cousins then threw an incompletion to Cook on which the running back was hit the second he tried to catch the ball and Cousins was sacked for a 6-yard loss on which right guard Dru Samia assisted the Titans on the sack.
If that was bad, the Vikings’ second drive was worse. Cook carried on first down for 9 yards and then took a pitch from Cousins on which he cut to the right side before fumbling. Titans linebacker Rashaan Evans recovered and the Titans started at the Vikings 20 yard-line but again only got a field goal.
It was on the Vikings’ ensuing possession that they finally got Jefferson involved when it mattered. Jefferson caught a 9-yard pass on second-and-8 from the Vikings 48. It was followed one play later by Cook’s 39-yard rushing touchdown on which the highly paid running back began erasing the memory of that fumble.
That touchdown gave the Vikings a one-point lead. Jefferson’s heroics on Minnesota’s next series set up another touchdown. Facing third-and-3 from midfield, Cousins threw deep down the left sideline for a 31-yard gain. Cousins then found Thielen on a 16-yard touchdown pass.

The Cousins-Jefferson combination wasn’t done yet. A wide-open Jefferson caught a short pass that he took for 33 yards and, on the same drive, he nearly caught a 26-yard pass from Cousins in the end zone before it was broken up by Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler.
The Vikings got a brief scare on the first play of the second half when Cousins’ high throw to Jefferson was picked off by Joseph and returned for what looked to be a touchdown. But Tennessee defensive end Jadeveon Clowney’s illegal block on Jefferson erased the score and the Titans’ subsequent drive stalled.
There remains room for improvement when it comes to Jefferson’s role in the offense. That interception was one of only two times he was targeted in the entire third quarter and no passes were thrown in his direction in the fourth quarter. Considering how Jefferson performed in the first half, and on his third-quarter touchdown, one would hope that Jefferson will become a target in all four quarters starting next Sunday.