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Teammates Encourage Justin Jefferson, Create Plan of Attack Without Him

EAGAN, Minn. — Eight players were involved in roster moves announced by the Vikings on Wednesday.

The biggest headline grabber was the official announcement that Justin Jefferson has been placed on Injured Reserve and will miss at least the next for games as he recovers from a hamstring injury suffered early in the fourth quarter last week against Kansas City.

Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said hamstring injuries can be tricky when trying to speculate on a timeline for a player's return, but the Vikings do not anticipate it will be a season-ending injury for the All-Pro superstar.

"I know he feels pretty good, considering where some guys feel at this point in the process, having just been this past Sunday," O'Connell said. "It's just going to be about all it entails to go through the process to where he can have some time to start feeling like he can be at full speed again, as explosive as he is, and that'll be a process he'll work through. Hopefully, we can get that window opened up and see where he's at."

O'Connell said the team decided the best approach for Jefferson was to place him on short-term IR.

Teammates have responded by wanting to provide support for one of their captains who delivers his talent and energy. They'll also try to elevate their games and help Minnesota (1-4) dig out of its hole.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson dealt with significant injuries earlier in his career with Detroit and provided encouraging words to Jefferson, who will miss an NFL game for the first time Sunday with the Vikings visit the Bears in Chicago.

"I've kind of gone through it in certain situations. Hamstring, hopefully he'll be back soon. I've broken my ankle. I've torn my thumb, a couple of different things, so I just tried to help him a little bit," Hockenson said. "There are some guys here in the city who can help out a little bit with some body work stuff. Hopefully we can get him back as quick as we can. I know it's four weeks at least on the IR, so hopefully have him at 100 percent by the time he gets back and go forward from there and hopefully we're in the position we want to be in."

Hockenson said Jefferson is "obviously disappointed" by the injury because of how competitive he is.

"It's something that you never, as a competitor, you don't want to not be on the field," Hockenson said. "That's kind of a reality to our business, though, there are going to be times in your career when you just can't. Your body won't let you. That's one of these times, but he's up, he's here.

"I've seen him throughout the building and just talked to him," Hockenson added. "Mood is high, and that's a credit to him. He's one of our captains and a guy that has the same mood every day coming in. That's kind of what we look for in those kinds of people. He'll be all right. He's still going to be the same Justin when he comes back. This is just a stretch we're going to have to roll and attack every opportunity."

Because of the high volume of targets Jefferson has fielded — and his production with those opportunities — there are a couple of leading questions heading into this stretch.

1. How will the Vikings approach their offensive attack?

This is a bit of uncharted water for Minnesota since Jefferson has been available for every game since his selection in 2020.

Kirk Cousins, who has directed the football toward Jefferson but also read coverages and distributed elsewhere will be running point and is entrusting O'Connell's offensive system.

"I think we still have a system and an offense that we run, and if all 11 players were different, there's still a stability there of what you do and how you do it, and your philosophy that's installed back in April," Cousins said. "I think there's a foundation that you have that you lean on when there are curve balls thrown, that are going to be inevitably thrown at you."

2. How will defenses play against the Vikings?

Defenses have tried multiple options for defending Jefferson, ranging from double teams (or sometimes even triple teams) or playing a shell to dissuade Cousins from directing the football to Jefferson, but O'Connell and the offensive staff have still been able to scheme up targets, and Cousins makes sure to find 1-on-1s when a team does try that approach.

"You haven't really seen what that might look like. I think defenses are so well prepared that they'll still then go by, 'OK, whoever else is left, how do we want to defend that?' So there's still gonna be a very intentional, prepared approach from them that will be calculated," Cousins said. "But you never really know. And we never knew how they were going to defend Justin from week to week, you know? You had your ideas, but you also knew that it's multiple. So sometimes defending Justin, they can do it in completely different ways on back-to-back plays. That variety, I think, also helps us be prepared maybe for what we could see now."

Jefferson (36 catches) and Hockenson (30) are the only teammates in 2023 to each have more than 30 catches through five weeks. The tight end could see a bit more attention from defenders as early as Sunday.

"There's things Justin can do obviously that we're going to miss, things that he does to the defense," Hockenson said. "We have opportunities for all the guys in this locker room, all the skill guys to step up and make plays when their number is called. It puts a little chip on your shoulder."

O'Connell on Quarterbacks

The Vikings also placed backup quarterback Nick Mullens on Injured Reserve Wednesday, but O'Connell said the back injury that sidelined Mullens last week is not expected to be a long-term issue.

O'Connell said Mullens will be "heavily" involved in the game-plan process within the quarterbacks room.

Rookie Jaren Hall will operate as Minnesota's No. 2 quarterback, and the group also will benefit from the experience of Sean Mannion, who was signed to the practice squad Wednesday.

"Jaren's going to be the No. 2. He was last week, thought he did a really nice job, kind of in his preparation with [quarterbacks coach] Chris [O'Hara] and [assistant QBs coach] Grant [Udinski]. We would go in with a little bit slightly modified plan as we move forward, just where he can have total ownership of what I would call, if he were to be called into action," O'Connell said. "But I think it's great for him, all part of that development that we've talked about, the different phases of it, from being that emergency third guy throughout these first four, five weeks or so to now shifting into a role where he's really just a snap away and, 'How does his preparation match that?'

"It's been really strong for a young guy, kind of finding his weekly rhythm, and we'll keep on supporting him and helping him grow every day, and getting reps versus our defense in practice is certainly a good thing for him, dealing with running the show and some of the things our defense, they consistently do to apply pressure on the quarterback," O'Connell added. "I think all of that is leading to a place where he's just having daily growth and development."

As for the signing of Mannion, who spent all or parts of 2019-22 with Minnesota, O'Connell said the Vikings can lean on his high football IQ.

"With Sean, I think there is a lot of great factors as far as he is coming into this not having the ability to get a lot of reps in our offense, but Sean's football IQ, his ability to go in there and run our offense and make sure all the other 10 guys in the huddle know exactly what to do," O'Connell said. "The checks, we can basically run our offense as is with Sean from a perspective from the quarterback's role mentally.

"Clearly, he hasn't had the reps with our group that we would call it like that. I think you can't underestimate the impact of his role in the quarterbacks room," O'Connell added. "He's an aspiring coach. He works like that. He takes notes like that. I think he is a great support system for Kirk over their time together. So, I was excited to get Sean back in the room. I think it will be great for Jaren, as well, to be around a guy like Sean."