More MMQB: For Jacoby Brissett, a Day of Rain, Tears and One Last Win With the Browns | Ten Takeaways: Eagles Run Over Packers; Saleh Right to Bench Wilson | Michigan’s Experienced Offensive Line Helped Topple Ohio State
It’s always interesting seeing where a player will take a conversation on reaching individual milestones. Justin Jefferson, just 23 years old, has already had some practice doing it.
So when I raised the record with the Vikings’ receiver about breaking the best three-year start in NFL history—he’s now at 4,248 yards, which bests the mark of 4,163 by Vikings legend Randy Moss, and he still has six games left in his third season—Jefferson wasn’t at any loss for words. And he didn’t hesitate to push things over to the guys he was surrounded by in a victorious Minnesota locker room, as we talked Thursday night.
“Oh yeah, I mean, it’s always special to be recognized, to top one of the greatest of all time and to do it with a couple games still left,” Jefferson said. “That just goes to show you the connection that me and Kirk [Cousins] have with this offense and of course, K.O. [Kevin O’Connell] coming in this year, helping us out with the different play calls and putting me in different situations to get the ball.
“This team is pretty special. A lot of guys play hand-in-hand on getting these types of wins, and it’s just not me going out there just making plays. It starts with the O-line, to Dalvin [Cook] coming down and making a block, Kirk throwing a good ball, and me going and making plays. It’s just full execution all the way around.”
That Jefferson was the most valuable Viking on the night he broke the record, in a 33–26 Thanksgiving win over the Patriots, won’t surprise anyone. But how he got to 139 yards and a touchdown on nine catches is remarkable nonetheless.
And that’s because, as you’d expect, New England coach Bill Belichick and his staff, always intent on taking an offense’s strength away and making it play lefthanded, threw the kitchen sink at Jefferson, trying to make Cousins go elsewhere with the ball. He didn’t have to, which is a pretty good indication of how Jefferson has gotten to the best yardage mark in under three seasons—it almost doesn’t matter what you do; he’s gonna get his.
How does he still get open? I had him take me through a few critical plays from Thursday-night’s game.
• Interestingly enough, Jefferson’s second touch resulted in an 11-yard completion—only in this case, he was the one throwing the ball rather than catching it. The double-pass call was designed to suck the defense up, with Cousins delivering a slightly backward throw to Jefferson, and Jefferson throwing it past defenders pursuing him, to Adam Thielen.
“My brother’s a quarterback,” Jefferson said, referencing older sibling Jordan, who played the position at LSU. “I’ve been throwing the ball since I was a young kid. I still can throw the ball; that’s pretty much why we only throw the ball with me. I saw Adam, sitting in the hole with the safety over the top, and I was just throwing it in the hole. It was a great play by both of us, just being on the same page.”
• Three plays later, to cash that one in, the Vikings had to convert a third-and-2 from the New England 6-yard line. And this is one of those spots where everyone in the building, the guys wearing navy and red included, knew where Cousins wanted to go with the ball. Yet, there was Jefferson, catching the ball between three defenders inside the 5-yard line, and diving over the goal line.
“It’s just kind of like a little rub play, K.J. [Osborn] going vertical and then me coming underneath him, and then me using my speed to get across the field,” Jefferson said. “Kirk threw a great pass before the back-side linebacker was there, before the safety was there. Just great execution all the way around.”
• The Patriots punched back to take a 13–10 late in the second quarter, and Minnesota was looking at a potential three-and-out, with the momentum already going the other way, as it faced third-and-7 from its own 28. Accordingly, Belichick doubled Jefferson, with Jonathan Jones covering him to the outside, and Devin McCourty to the inside. And with a guy to his right and to his left, Jefferson ran by both of them.
Thirty-seven yards later, the Vikings were at the New England 35, and six plays away from regaining the lead at 16–13.
“That’s just Kirk just giving me the opportunity to go up and make a play,” Jefferson said. “They’d been doubling me throughout the entire game. So just using my speed, trying to get downfield, and him just throwing it up to me and letting me make a play.”
• With the game tied at 26, 10:27 left, and a second-and-2 from the Vikings’ 49 looming, O’Connell saw the chance to go for the jugular and seized on it. And Cousins followed through on the lessons the coaches have tried to give him on taking more chances, putting another one up for Jefferson, this one a hole shot down the left sideline. Jones was, again, close in coverage, and McCourty came to level Jefferson as the ball arrived.
Jefferson didn’t flinch. He hauled the ball in, took the hit and picked up 36 yards.
“That play, we had a double-move on,” Jefferson said. “I beat ’em off the double move, safety was kind of over the top, slightly to my side. Kirk threw it up, just letting me go up and make a play again. And I’m using my peripheral to see the safety coming, and Kirk dropped the ball perfectly right before he came.”
On the next play, Belichick had three guys on Jefferson. Which opened things up for Thielen on a 15-yard, game-winning touchdown.
That capped a day in which Jefferson didn’t just do the big things but also the little things, too. Two weeks ago, it was a block in Buffalo to spring an 81-yard Cook touchdown run. This time, it was making a seven-yard catch that prevented a pick in the second quarter, when the Patriots had scored 10 consecutive. The play was wiped out by an offensive holding call, but if Jefferson doesn’t make it, the Patriots decline the penalty and get the ball back.
Jefferson acknowledged to me the importance of that one. But he also talked about how everyone’s played their part in the team’s 9–2 start. Which is also what he did, one more time, when the topic of fighting off double teams and continuing to produce came up.
“It’s our execution, just K.O. dialing up plays,” he said. “We knew going into the game that they were going to double me a good bit of times, but just our play-calling, me moving across, motioning across, just getting different looks, it definitely helped out a little bit. But I’m just glad that we got the win, and we were able to bounce back from last week.
“This team is very special. The team I had at LSU was special, too, but this one is as special. Our chemistry, the way we fight for each other, the players that we have that make plays on the offensive side and defensive side, and special teams, we have a lot of guys on this team and we just got to focus every single week, play week by week and don’t worry about what’s coming up ahead, and just do what we gotta do. But this is the start of it, for sure.”
And as for where this one finishes, it’s fair to say Jefferson will be a huge part of that. Regardless of what other teams do to stop him.
Mike McCarthy and his staff got a lot of credit, justifiably, for managing Dak Prescott’s injury, and having Cooper Rush ready to go earlier in the year, which in turn gave Prescott a 5–2 team to return to in late October.
But what those guys have done with the offensive line might be even more impressive.
And I say that after Zack Martin explained to me that, yes, there was a point when even his own confidence was shaken. That would’ve been in late August, when eight-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith went down—the team feared it’d be for the season—with a torn hamstring. Suddenly, Martin was the only remaining piece of the great Cowboys lines of a few years ago, with La’el Collins now in Cincinnati and Travis Frederick retired.
“When Tyron got hurt, it was a big moment, just because of how important he is,” Martin told me. “When you look at our history, when he hasn’t been out there, it hasn’t been the best for us. And we had drafted Tyler Smith, a rookie who, really, in training camp, had only taken reps at left guard. So I think maybe the coaches knew he was able, but they kind of told us that he was going to compete at the left guard spot.
“And then whatever it was, 10 to 12 days before the season opener, Tyron goes down. It was a little bit of a scramble trying to figure out like, Hey, are they going to go out and try to get somebody? Are they going to put Tyler there? And credit to them, they stuck to their guns.”
Most of all, they didn’t panic. They moved Tyler Smith, the first-rounder from Tulsa, back out to his college position of left tackle, and simply turned him from the left tackle of tomorrow into the left tackle of today, and signed 40-year-old future Hall of Famer Jason Peters as an insurance policy. They stayed committed to giving Tyler Smith a full run at what most believed was his most natural position. It worked.
And it’s worked, really, from the jump.
“As bad as it was that Dak got hurt early in the year when he went out, I think there was a serious emphasis put on the run game and finding a rhythm there,” Martin said. “They did an awesome job of taking the pressure off of Cooper and really establishing a run game and identity of our offense. And credit to the coaches and Kellen [Moore] and those guys. We found a little something there. And then when Dak came back, obviously we’re throwing it more, but I think the emphasis on the run game is still a big part of it.”
The numbers bear that out, and show how reliably the Cowboys have been able to lean on their line, and Tony Pollard and Zeke Elliott, to churn out yards, and help control down-and-distance, and the pace and tenor of their games.
While Rush was in there, the Cowboys posted rushing totals of 107, 176, 62, 163 and 134. Since Prescott’s Week 7 return, they’ve gone for 134, 139, 200, 159, 151 and 169 yards. And they’ve done it without their potential future Hall of Famer Tyron Smith, and with young guys who have improved fast enough to keep Peters in his reserve role. It’s Tyler Smith, of course, but it’s also center Tyler Biadasz, left guard Connor McGovern and right tackle Terence Steele, each of whom is 25 and has been around at least three years.
Meanwhile, Peters has helped to mentor Tyler Smith, and Tyron Smith is expected back relatively soon, with the plan, per Jerry Jones, of having him back at left tackle, with his first-round replacement kicking back inside.
“Terence Steele, Tyler Biadasz, McGovern, to see how much they’ve developed, it’s really credit to our two line coaches, Coach [Joe] Philbin and [Jeff] Blasko, they’ve done a great job with these young guys,” Martin said. “It’s fun to be a part of and maybe having a little part just helping those guys develop. You can see the confidence of those guys growing, and as it gets more games, I think they’ll be more comfortable. It’s a fun line to be a part of.”
Making the whole thing even more dangerous is that, really, it’s a true two-back system—Pollard has led the team in rushing six times, and Elliott has topped the list in Dallas’s other five games, with Zeke having taken the baton most recently, going for 92 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in the team’s Thanksgiving win over the Giants. “Just their running style,” Martin said. “They’re very different. So it keeps defenses on their heels.”
Right now, because of stuff like this—the young defensive talent in-house has developed similarly under Dan Quinn—the Cowboys have a lot of people on their heels. And if you look at the schedule, you see the Colts, Texans and Jaguars up the next three weeks, leading into the Christmas Eve rematch with the division-leading Eagles.
Seems like a decent bet that McCarthy’s crew will be 11–3 heading into that one, and like McCarthy’s staff will bring a group that can stand up to Philly’s stout lines, too.
If the Chargers are going to go down, they’re going down Brandon Staley’s way. And on Sunday that meant they weren’t going down at all.
Sitting at .500, L.A. had to scratch and claw to get out of Arizona with a win. But that didn’t make Staley any more gun-shy than he ever had been. So it was that the Chargers’ coach made the decision to go for two to win the game with 15 seconds left so fast that it came before the guy who’d put the winning touchdown on the board even realized he’d scored.
“I didn’t even know that I scored,” Austin Ekeler said, laughing, over the phone from the visiting locker room. “I saw the signal, but then we got back in the huddle right away and I was like, Oh, they must’ve said my knee was short or something like that. Or I got out of bounds or something. And then I look up, and then they call a timeout. I was like, Ah, shoot, O.K., I didn’t score. … So that was an interesting series of events there at the end.”
Seconds later, Justin Herbert hit a wide-open Gerald Everett, on a play perfectly schemed to put a defensive player in conflict, and the players had cashed in Staley’s bet on them.
The final was 25–24, and it got the Chargers to 6–5, tied with the Patriots for eighth spot in the AFC, just outside the playoff picture. But the bigger-picture thing here, to me at least, seemed to be Staley’s doubling down again on his players in a critical juncture by throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of a win. He was repeatedly praised for the approach early in his time in charge in L.A. Then, that swung back around on him, as he kept pushing chips in and, some would argue, going too far. And now, there’s split opinion on how he’s done it.
This much, though, you can take to the bank—his players love it. In fact, once Ekeler figured out what was going on, he said his thought was, O.K., we’re going for two. I love this play that we called. And I didn’t even think twice.
“I mean, this has been a battle all game, and we’re down here,” Ekeler said. “Like, this is it. Let’s get it done. For me, I think going for two, I think you should just because the overtime stuff, man, now you’re leaving it up to a flip of a coin, who-gets-the-ball-first type of thing, and they can score a touchdown. So it’s like, why would you leave it up to that? Instead, Hey, let’s try to get it right now.”
It’s also reflective of wanting to survive the rock fight this game was. The Chargers’ previous two possessions, before the game-winning drive, ended on a 13-yard sack and a pick, and that final march was aided by a 20-yard punt return that put the ball on the Cardinals’ 38 with 1:48 left. From there, Herbert went 6-of-7 for 48 yards (L.A. had to cover an extra 10 yards after a holding call), with half those completions going to Ekeler.
None, of course, were bigger than the final one—a one-yard touchdown on a swing route that necessitated Ekeler’s muscling the ball over the goal line, as Isaiah Simmons contacted him at full speed and tried to drive him away from it by riding him out of bounds.
“We’re on the 1-yard line, so you don’t have to make it very far,” he said. “But it gets really congested down there, so in that particular situation, it was a race basically between me and the ’backer to the pylon. I was able to, yeah, just get a step on him, catch it, torque my body back enough to hit the pylon with the ball.”
Which then led to some confusion, and finally his involvement in the two-point call. The concept, Ekeler said, essentially used motion, moving him in the backfield, to force linebacker Zaven Collins to choose whether to cover him or Everett. Collins, understandably, went with Ekeler.
“We have two people, me and Gerald, running to the flat. And the hook player [Collins] has gotta make a decision,” Ekeler said. “Is he respecting two people to the flat, and if he does that, then guess what? Gerald’s hanging a left and then sitting inside. And if not, then it’s me again racing to the pylon, trying to beat the flat defender. And the hook player ended up playing just wide enough; Gerald was able to get inside of him and get into the zone.”
And assure that Staley won’t change his ways anytime soon. Not that he was going to, anyway.