After Adam Thielen was injured on Minnesota’s sixth offensive play Sunday, Kirk Cousins naturally focused on his other standout receiver, Justin Jefferson.
Jefferson responded with career highs of 11 catches and 182 yards, but the Vikings wasted that performance in a gut-wrenching 29-27 loss to Detroit.
It’s becoming a trend.
Despite a dynamic and record-filled two seasons in the NFL for Jefferson, the Vikings are again looking at the playoff picture from the outside. Their loss to the Lions dropped them to 5-7 in a crowded NFC race.
“As long as we don’t get the ‘W,’ it doesn’t matter what type of game I have,” Jefferson said. “If I have a career game, record-setting game, it doesn’t matter. If we don’t come out with the ‘W,’ it’s pointless.”
The career day gave Jefferson 2,609 receiving yards through his first 28 games. He surpassed Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (2,497) for the third-most receiving yards in NFL history through two seasons. Only Odell Beckham Jr. (2,755) and Randy Moss (2,726) had more through their first two seasons, and Jefferson has five more games on the 2021 schedule.
Jefferson had the second-most receiving yards by a rookie in NFL history last year, breaking several franchise rookie records previously held by the Hall of Famer Moss. The Vikings still finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. The defeat in Detroit to the previously winless Lions could prove disastrous for their attempt to make the playoffs this season.
“There’s only so much that I personally can control, so I just always try to do my part, what I can control,” Jefferson said.
After a two-week stretch when he was targeted just nine times with five catches for 90 yards, Jefferson has taken full control. In the past four games, he’s averaged 11 targets, eight catches and 144 yards per game with three touchdowns.
Jefferson is seventh in the league with 78 catches. He’s second in receiving yards with 1,209, behind only the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp. Jefferson has the most receiving yards of anyone in the NFL over the past two seasons.
“He’s done a great job,” Cousins said. “He plays big. He’s not a big guy, necessarily, but he plays big with long arms and has a big catch radius. He runs so well, he cuts so well, he’s great after the catch running away from people. He’s natural at finding the football. I think our coaches have done a tremendous job of finding ways to get him the ball.”
The Vikings will need Jefferson just as much going forward. Thielen has a significant ankle sprain that will likely keep him out of Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh and possibly longer.
He has not practiced this week. Neither has left tackle Christian Darrisaw (ankle), who did not play at Detroit. Running back Dalvin Cook (shoulder) returned to practice Tuesday on a limited basis, but he’s unlikely to play on Thursday.
Minnesota did activate veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson from the COVID-19 reserve list on Tuesday. Linebackers Eric Kendricks (bicep) and Anthony Barr (hamstring/knee) also returned to full participation, putting them on track to play against the Steelers.
When Thielen missed a game last year while on the COVID-19 list, Jefferson had a season-high 13 targets. He finished with seven catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns to lead Minnesota to a 28-27 win against Carolina.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Jefferson said. “Defenses focused on me a little bit, but we still had an overall good game. I think like three receivers had seven catches that game, so I mean, if one man’s down, the next man’s up. You can’t really get frustrated over that. You’ve just got to keep playing and make sure everybody’s on the same page.”
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