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Zulgad: Just-in Time: Vikings’ stubborn approach on offense, finally gives way to common sense

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Chargers
Nov 14, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) celebrates making a first down on a third down pass play in the third quarter at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings’ two-point victory over the Detroit Lions in Week 5 was filled with miscues that nearly cost them the game. But the most troubling thing was that Justin Jefferson caught only two passes on two targets for 20 yards in the second half after having five receptions for 104 yards on six targets in the first.

Criticism of this discrepancy was met with a scoff from many hardcore football film watchers. They were quick to point out that the Lions started playing more two deep in the second half and that quarterback Kirk Cousins could not throw to Jefferson because he was eliminated by the Lions.

This, of course, was nonsense.

Jefferson proved just how flawed this argument was on Sunday as the Vikings seemed to realize that they posses one of the NFL’s 10-best wide receivers on their roster. After back-to-back losses in which Jefferson caught five (yes, only five!) passes on nine targets for 90 yards and a touchdown, Cousins was clearly told to see what would happen if he threw the ball to Jefferson even when it appeared he wasn’t open.

The results: nine receptions on 11 targets for 143 yards in a 27-20 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium. This time there was no big first half, followed by “insert the excuse here,” for why Jefferson couldn’t be targeted in the second half.

Jefferson caught five passes for 73 yards on seven targets in the first two quarters and four passes on four targets for 70 yards in the final two. It wasn’t just the stats that told the story of Jefferson’s day. The eye test also was important as Jefferson outperformed Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, who easily won the Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year over Jefferson last season.

The Vikings led 13-10 at halftime, but the Chargers went 10 plays in 75 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter to take the lead. Vikings fans on Twitter quickly predicted that Mike Zimmer’s bunch would fold. They had seen it before from a team that has made losing close games a specialty and sat at 3-5 entering Sunday.

Only that didn’t happen. After the Vikings and Chargers exchanged drives that ended with punts, Minnesota got the ball at its own 34-yard line. Dalvin Cook’s 3-yard run on first down was followed by Cousins’ 27-yard pass that was caught by Jefferson at the Chargers 36. The pass wasn’t without danger. Jefferson was covered and Cousins was allowed to take the type of risk that he and his coaching staff normally avoid .

Jefferson adjusted on the ball, went high into the air and made an incredible catch. (It’s plays like this that Jefferson needs to be allowed to make and Cousins must be trusted. It’s often Cousins’ decision-making, not ability, that are the issue.)

Two short incompletions later, Cousins again took a chance by throwing to a covered Jefferson on third-and-10. The ball wasn’t particularly well thrown and ended up out of bounds, but Chargers cornerback Chris Harris was so concerned about getting beat by Jefferson that he interfered with him. That put the ball at the Chargers 25.

Cousins, now full of confidence, hit Adam Thielen on a 19-yard pass to the 6 and, four plays later, the quarterback heaved a ball into the air as he was being hit that was caught by tight end Tyler Conklin for his second touchdown of the day and a 20-17 lead.

The interference call on Harris erased that play, but it didn’t erase the significance of the threat Jefferson provides to the Vikings’ offense when he’s allowed to be a key part of it.

Jefferson wasn’t done. Going against a pass defense that entered the game third in the NFL, Jefferson made another outstanding catch on a 27-yard pass from Cousins on third-and-6 that came with the Vikings leading by seven and just over 3 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Jefferson not only beat cornerback Tevaughn Campbell, but managed to get both feet in bounds as he landed at the Los Angeles 44. His catch survived a desperation challenge from Chargers coach Brandon Staley.

The drive eventually got the Vikings to the Chargers 36, facing a fourth-and-2, with the two-minute warning approaching. Zimmer decided to go for it and Cook picked up 4 yards to secure the victory.

It’s safe to say that in the past two weeks, Cousins wouldn’t have been allowed to throw that difficult pass to Jefferson and the Vikings wouldn’t have gone for it. Maybe they would have had Greg Joseph attempt a risky 53-yard field goal, or even punted and counted on their defense to hold.

It would be one thing to play scared if the Vikings offense didn’t have a guy like Jefferson, but after wasting his talents for much of this season, something finally changed. And the plug wasn’t pulled on that plan when Jefferson dropped a deep pass from Cousins in the first quarter on a play that was wiped out by a holding call on right guard Oli Udoh.

Maybe it was Zimmer trying to preserve his job. Maybe it was offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak getting some play-calling help in the booth. Or maybe Jefferson told his bosses it was time to get him the damn ball, while he publicly put a positive spin on a bad situation.

The how doesn’t matter. The fact that Jefferson was allowed to play the leading role in a Vikings’ win near Hollywood was all that was important. Hopefully, Zimmer and Kubiak realize that this is one script from which they should not deviate.