When the Vikings faced the Detroit Lions in the third game of the season, the Lions had a plan: stop Minnesota wide receiver Justin Jefferson at all costs.
The approach was a double-edged sword for the Lions, though. While Detroit was able to limit Jefferson to three receptions and a career-low 14 yards, the Lions aggressive coverage cost them in the form of eight penalties in the secondary (six accepted and two declined).
Detroit also allowed wide receivers Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn to combine for 11 receptions, 134 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Osborn's 28-yard score came with just 45 seconds remaining to lift the Vikings to a 28-24 victory after Minnesota trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter.
The two teams will see each other again at noon (CT) Sunday in Detroit, with the Vikings trying to secure their third NFC North title in the past decade and first since 2017.
Will Ragatz of Sports Illustrated looked at how both sides are handling their approach with Jefferson in the second matchup.
In the first go-around, the Lions placed cornerback Jeff Okudah on Jefferson while also providing safety help over the top.
"They challenged us quite a bit in the pass game," Vikings Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips said. "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."
Jefferson currently ranks third in receptions (88), second in receiving yards (1,277) and ninth in receiving touchdowns (six). He leads the NFL in all-time receiving yards per game (95.4) and is averaging 106.4 yards per contest this season.
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."
Ragatz said if the Lions try to put multiple defenders on Jefferson again, the Vikings other pass-catchers such as Thielen, Osborn and tight end T.J. Hockenson — who was with Detroit in Week 3 — will have to step up.
But in order for the Vikings to earn a division title Sunday, Ragatz added Jefferson needs to be involved.
"Justin had a huge impact on this game, it just didn't show up on the stat sheet," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said after Minnesota's win against Detroit 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."
Pro Football Focus provides top tackle rankings
Each week, 64 starting tackles are tasked with trying to stop some of the NFL's top pass rushers in an effort to keep their quarterbacks upright.
Marcus Mosher of Pro Football Focus recently unveiled his rankings for the top 25 offensive tackles going into Week 14.
Vikings left tackle Christian Darrisaw was ranked third on the list. Mosher wrote:
One of the breakout stars of the 2022 season, Darrisaw has allowed only two sacks this season (both against Dallas) and has given up only 12 pressures. The former first-round pick out of Virginia Tech missed the past few weeks with a concussion, but he is one of the league's best young left tackles.
Mosher placed Minnesota right tackle Brian O'Neill in the 12th spot.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 14, 2023.
O'Neill is having a strong 2022 season for the Vikings. He has been a high-quality starter at right tackle for a few years now, but this is the best campaign of his career. He is a supreme athlete with the feet to mirror the best pass-rushers, having allowed only four quarterback hits all season. It's his work in the run game that makes him one of the best right tackles in the league, though.
O'Neill sports an 82.6 run-blocking grade, tied for fourth in the NFL along with [Lions right tackle] Penei Sewell. … Together [O'Neill and Darrisaw] form one of the best tackle pairings in the league.
Mosher ranked Sewell 11th on the list. He wrote:
Sewell could easily be among the top 10 of this list, and no one would bat an eye. He's been incredible for the Lions at right tackle and is a big reason [Lions quarterback]Jared Goff and the run game have been so successful. He is the fourth-highest-graded run-blocker on the season (82.6), behind only Trent Williams, Kaleb McGary and Darrisaw.
Mosher also put Lions left tackle Taylor Decker in the 21st spot.
Decker's play has declined since 2020, but he's still a quality left tackle for the Lions. He has not allowed a sack in each of the past eight games and has surrendered just one quarterback hit. Decker hasn't been quite as strong as a run-blocker (68.7), but he's been pretty solid overall for the Lions this season.