EAGAN, Minn. – Justin Jefferson will get his second go at the Bears this weekend.
Minnesota (6-7) and Chicago (6-7) are both fighting to grab a Wild Card spot in the NFC Playoffs, and Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium promises to be a tough division matchup.
Jefferson spoke with Twin Cities media members Wednesday and said he's looking forward to continuing to fight alongside his teammates and helping the Vikings hopefully sweep the Bears this season.
In the teams' first meeting at Soldier Field in Week 10, the rookie receiver racked up 135 yards on eight catches. But success or not, he's plenty aware of the challenge Chicago presents.
"They're a physical team; they have a great defense," Jefferson said. "We've just got to find those things to beat those coverages and make those big plays down the field."
There certainly can be pros and cons to playing division teams twice in a season, and it goes without saying that Chicago will be prepared for its second meeting with Minnesota's offense.
Jefferson has gotten a taste of the way teams could key in on him, most recently in the Vikings Week 14 loss to the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay played tight coverage on Minnesota's receivers, successfully stifling the impact of Jefferson and Adam Thielen in the passing game.
The younger of the two receivers didn't make his first catch until the second quarter, a 17-yard pass from Kirk Cousins, and finished the day with just four receptions for 39 yards.
"They definitely played a little different coverage than we were expecting," Jefferson said. "They were doing some roll coverages, playing over the top of me and Adam [Thielen], so we had to find different little ways to get open and find those spots in the defense."
Similar to what the Vikings saw from the Bucs, the Bears don't often blitz with an extra defender, relying instead on standard pressure from a front stacked with Pro Bowlers. Chicago's 30 sacks (16th) and 67 quarterback hits (T-18th) rank middle-of-the-pack in the NFL despite averaging just 8.6 blitzes per game, which is eighth-lowest in the league, according to Sportradar.
Opting against rushing extra defenders frees up resources for Chicago's secondary to focus on pass coverage.
"Having a safety over the top or having the defense bracket you, it's a little difficult at times," Jefferson reiterated. "But we just have to keep fighting and keep trying to find ways to get open."
He later said he studies film "very closely" after being especially limited by a defense.
"You just try to figure out the things that you could do next time in order to get open if [a] defense tried to play you the same way," Jefferson explained. "Just like coaches always say, this is a copycat league, so the things that you put on tape, you'll be expecting that the next few weeks coming up.
"So I definitely have to see what I can do better on those different coverages," he added. "I definitely have to get open on those and give Kirk a better look."
Cousins, who also spoke with media Wednesday, explained how defenses have approached Jefferson as the season has progressed.
"As defenses have more film of our offense and how we've incorporated him, being aware of how they want to defend him," Cousins said. "That's where it's a different conversation, [when] Adam was [on the Reserve/COVID-19 list] then maybe teams would hone in on Justin a little bit more than when you have them both.
"And then going back to personnel groupings and just being aware of how they defend us with Justin when we're in our base personnel, but then when we're in three wide receivers vs. having two tight ends," Cousins continued. "Just all those different variables. But they'll have a plan and they'll know where he is, and we'll have to get a sense as the game goes just like they'll be doing the same with us."
Sunday will mark Jefferson's 14th NFL game, and he was asked about hitting any type of rookie wall that first-year players sometimes experience after shorter collegiate campaigns. LSU did play 15 games on the way to its perfect season in 2019, but the Tigers had a three-week gap between winning the SEC Championship and the CFP National Semifinal. LSU also cruised in so many games, winning each of its final six games by 17 or more points.
"It is tiring. This is a long season. Everybody always told me … how long it is, but for me to actually go through it and have all these practices and games, your body gets tired," the 21-year-old acknowledged. "But a lot of these veterans have been telling me different ways to prepare my body and to [get my body right after games]."
One thing's for sure: Jefferson hasn't visibly showed any signs of slowing down.
With three games remaining in the regular season, he's just five catches away from surpassing Randy Moss' 69 in 1998 and setting a new Vikings record for receptions by a rookie. Currently at 1,078 receiving yards, Jefferson needs 236 more to also pass Moss' record for receiving yards by a rookie.
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Bears.
"I didn't even know I was that close to him," Jefferson admitted of his catch total. "But that's pretty exciting to [potentially] beat him in receptions and be No. 1 on the board."
He added with a smile: "I'm excited for that – and hopefully I can beat his yards record also."