Lions notes: Defense looks to limit mismatches against Vikings star Justin Jefferson
Allen Park — Containing Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson is tricky, not only because of his otherworldly talent but because he's so tough to track snap to snap.
The Vikings do a good job moving Jefferson all around the field. Sure, he does plenty of damage on the outside, where he lines up 54.6% of the time, but he also spends a fair amount of time operating out of the slot, the source of half of his targets through two games. Heck, the Vikings even toss him in the backfield on occasion, just to keep the opponent off guard.
So within that task, priority No. 1 for Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is to avoid his unit from getting caught off guard and in a situation where Minnesota is able to create a mismatch for Jefferson.
"You have to make sure you create a defense to where you try to put skill on skill," Glenn said Thursday. "You want to try to create a defense to where you make sure you take care of the running back, all right, because you don’t want to just continue to have two guys on (Jefferson) because that creates an extra space, an extra gap for the running back to be able to get free.
"When you’re in a one-on-one situation, you have to win. I mean, that’s what this game is all about. You hear offense talk about it all the time, it’s a matchup league. Well, for defense, it’s a matchup league, too."
Jefferson, who ranked second in receiving yards last season and sits at fifth with 232 through the first two games this year, was held in check by the Eagles last week. The Lions don't have the luxury of having a shutdown cornerback on the roster who can follow Jefferson around the field, similar to the way Darius Slay did in Monday's matchup. Amani Oruwariye has been dealing with a back issue that sidelined him last Sunday and Jeff Okudah is still just settling into a groove after missing all of last season with a torn Achilles. So both, along with nickel corner Mike Hughes, will all be likely be tasked with dealing with Jefferson throughout Sunday's game.
“There’s no doubt he’s one of the top five in this league and he’s steady, steady rising," Glenn said. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s competitive, highly competitive. They put him in a lot of different positions where they can give him the ball, which I think is a credit to that staff."
But Glenn also understands that if you commit too much to slowing Jefferson, the Vikings have other ways to beat you, whether that's running back Dalvin Cook, tight end Irv Smith Jr. or two-time Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen.
"As far as their running back and Thielen, all the other guys they have, I think they really complement each other and I think they utilize those guys the right way to make sure that if you focus on this guy, man, we have other guys that can hurt you," Glenn said. "So when we do have Jefferson locked up, man, we’ve got to make sure that we’re good with the other guys also because they can hurt you.”
When the Vikings scooped up quarterback David Blough for the team's practice squad, the obvious concern is he could offer advanced insight into what the Lions are doing offensively. To a degree, that was confirmed by Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips on Wednesday.
"There definitely was some discussion, just about his thoughts from an offensive perspective, obviously, knowing that better but some of the things he learned from their defense, as well," Phillips told local media. "The quarterback is usually the best guy to ask on some of that stuff."
Debriefing a player on his former team ahead of a matchup is hardly unique, so the Lions aren't sweating what Blough is able to reveal. That said, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said it's something being taken into consideration as the team constructs its game plan for the Vikings this Sunday.
“We’re like every other team in this league. Everyone steals plays from each other, so I don’t think anything we’re doing is necessarily revolutionary," Johnson said. "There are some things David might know situationally about us that — well we also know what he knows. So, we are calculated in how we respond to that. But yeah, I mean there are a couple things that we’ll address. Other than that, though, we’re not going to overthink things from that regard."
Drops not a major concern
Through two games, the Lions rank last in the league in drops and drop rate, allowing 12.7% of targets to slip through the receivers' fingers. That's included uncharacteristically shaky moments from typically sure-handed pass catchers such as Amon-Ra St. Brown and T.J. Hockenson, who have each accounted for two drops.
Knowing it's out of character, Johnson is being careful not to make a mountain out of a molehill by putting too great an emphasis on the blunders.
"We talk about the fundamentals constantly," Johnson said. "That was really our big emphasis in the springtime, whether it’s blocking, whether it’s run after catch, whether it’s catching the football. Simple things that you would think are elementary that are really, really important for us. And that’s the one area right now that we’ve fallen on a little bit short.
"Having coached receivers, I don’t know that the answer is necessarily to highlight it and make it bigger than (it is). All these guys want to catch the ball, right? And I think it’s for different reasons. To me, it always going back to where your eyes — you catch the balls with your eyes before you do it with your hands, so it’s something we talk about. I’ve just encouraged them, ‘Hey, everyone needs to be catching 50 more balls a day, whether it’s on the JUGS, from the quarterbacks, from your position coach. Let’s just continue to work through it.' It normally works the kinks out as we go in. It generally hasn’t been a problem in my career."
The Lions ranked in the top half of the league in drop rate last season, finishing at 4%.
A welcomed return
While it has been easy to focus on the players the Lions have been losing to injury the first couple weeks of the season, the team did get some good news on that front last week when linebacker Julian Okwara was able to make his season debut.
Playing as a rotational end behind starters Charles Harris and Aidan Hutchinson, Okwara logged 33 snaps and racked up an impressive five quarterback pressures, including two on the game-sealing defensive series.
"JO is a fastball for us, especially off the edge," Glenn said. "We try to utilize him in those situations as much as we can. Obviously, last year, he had one of his, if not his best year. We’re looking for him to actually have a better year this year because we know what he can do now. So, it’s just to us as coaches to make sure we continue to put him in a situation where he can be successful."
Okwara, in his third season out of Notre Dame, appeared in 13 games last season, recording 27 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble. He had been sidelined since the middle of last month with a hamstring injury.