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Justin Jefferson Hopes to Have Bounce-Back Game Against Lions' Physical Secondary

The Lions limited Jefferson to a career-low 14 yards in Week 3, but picked up plenty of flags along the way.

During the first Vikings-Lions matchup this season — a dramatic Minnesota comeback victory at U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 3 — Detroit's defensive strategy was to sell out with physicality and double coverage on Justin Jefferson in an attempt to take him out of the game.

It worked, in the sense that Jefferson was held to three catches for a career-low 14 receiving yards.

In other ways, it didn't work. The Lions' secondary was penalized eight times for pass interference, defensive holding, or illegal contact, with Jefferson drawing three of those flags. Their commitment to giving cornerback Jeff Okudah safety help against the Vikings' superstar helped allow Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn to combine for 11 catches, 134 yards, and two touchdowns, including Osborn's late game-winner.

As the two teams prepare to meet again in Detroit this weekend, it'll be interesting to see if the Lions take the same approach against Jefferson.

"They challenged us quite a bit in the pass game," offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said on Thursday. "Okudah was moving around with Justin quite a bit, and they played a lot of 2-deep, man coverage stuff where they were challenging a lot of our guys, not just Justin, but trying to be physical, trying to let Okudah use his length, and they had some success in there. 

"They also had eight penalties on the DBs, whether it was defensive holding or illegal contact or defensive P.I. There were some (other plays) we turned in that the league came back and said it did rise to the level of a foul. Every week, you’re not going to get all of those calls. There’s only a certain amount of eyes out there to see all that stuff, so we understand that, but I don’t know — there’s a lot of hidden yardage there, penalties. I don’t know if they were OK with that or not, but we certainly expect to be challenged, particularly on third downs."

Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, is having a good third season after an underwhelming start to his career. But he was rarely on an island against Jefferson in the teams' first meeting. Okudah used a lot of trail technique, with a safety helping out over the top.

The result was the quietest game of Jefferson's career. It's the only time he's ever been held below 20 receiving yards, and that includes the first two games of his rookie season when he wasn't even a starter.

Jefferson is the NFL's all-time leader in receiving yards per game at 95.4. He's averaging 106.4 yards per game this season, and that number goes up to 114.8 if you exclude the first Lions game. He takes a lot of pride in being, in his mind, the best receiver in the league. Unsurprisingly, that Week 3 game is fresh in Jefferson's mind this week, and he's looking to make sure that it doesn't happen twice, regardless of how much defensive attention the Lions give him on Sunday.

"If I have the film from the first time y’all did it, I’m not trying to let that happen again," he said. "We know what they’re trying to do, that they’re not trying to let me get in open space. We got something for it, that’s all I can really say."

Jefferson made it clear multiple times that the Vikings have a plan to counter the Lions' approach.

"Looking at the film, we kind of have an idea of what they’ve been doing and what they’re trying to do, especially with me," he said. "We definitely got something planned for that. Mostly, it’s just about winning your one-on-one battles. They play a lot of man (coverage).

"They do a lot of jump-jamming (at the line of scrimmage), especially with a safety over the top, because he’s not really worried about losing. (Okudah) likes to get the hands on, try to be physical at the line of scrimmage, so we have a plan for it."

To a certain extent, if the Lions sell out to make someone else beat them, it's on Thielen and Osborn and the rest of the Vikings' offense to make that happen. They also have a new weapon at their disposal in T.J. Hockenson, who was on the visitor's sideline when the Lions came to Minneapolis. That changes the dynamic of things.

But even if the Lions do everything they can to take away Jefferson, the Vikings still need to find ways to overcome that and get the ball to their best player.

"Justin had a huge impact on this game, it just didn’t show up on the stat sheet," Kevin O'Connell said after the win in September. "But that’s not good enough. I’ve got to do a better job getting Justin (looks) of lining up in different spots and personnel groupings — whatever I need to do to help."

Prior to Week 3, Jefferson was on a streak of three consecutive 100-yard performances against the Lions. That includes 133 yards and 182 yards in his first two games at Ford Field.

How the Lions cover Jefferson — and how the Vikings adjust — will be one of the most interesting and important things to watch during Sunday's game.

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