How the Vikings can win the Jefferson vs. Sauce battle
It's not as simple as Gardner shadowing Jefferson. That probably won't happen.
The best way the Vikings can win the matchup between Justin Jefferson and Sauce Gardner on Sunday is to not find out what that matchup is like.
Silly? No. As long as Gardner sticks true to form and doesn't shadow Jefferson all game, the Vikings can move their superstar receiver around to avoid Gardner.
"Sauce Gardner has shown such next-level ability, the same type of skill of all of the elite corners. He's got length, instincts, playmaking ability on the ball. But unlike Darrelle Revis of the past, he does not follow receivers," says Purple Insider's Matthew Coller. "He's not going to be a guy that comes into the slot if Jefferson is lined up there or goes side-to-side or follows in motion. He's mostly going to stay on his side of the field."
According to Pro Football Focus, Gardner has lined up outside as a wide corner on 602 snaps this season and just seven times has he slid inside to the slot. Seeing Jefferson in the slot and in motion to get away from Gardner is a good bet this week, but that doesn't totally solve the Jets' defense.
The Jets have two elite corners.
"D.J. Reed has also had a tremendous year. That's not an easy matchup, either," said Coller. "Of course, no matter who Justin Jefferson goes up against he has an advantage because he's Justin Jefferson."
Gardner is the No. 1 cover corner in the the NFL this season and Reed ranks ninth, according to PFF. The Jets also have Michael Carter II, whose coverage grade ranks 19th and overall defensive grade is tied with Reed for 12th among cornerbacks.
But the truest of all the true keys to the game isn't exploiting whoever covers Jefferson. It's Minnesota's offensive line blocking New York's elite defensive line and giving Kirk Cousins time to find Jefferson.
"If you look at the numbers for the ability to pressure the quarterback, the Dallas Cowboys are right up there. New England is also right up there, who [the Vikings] solved pretty well on Thanksgiving night. But there's the New York Jets right next to those teams among the elite at getting after the quarterback," said Coller.
"So using play-actions, using the run game to set up the pass, finding ways to get Jefferson the ball and then finding other options. T.J. Hockenson has been huge for this team. He's been one of the best tight ends in the league since coming over to Minnesota. Finding other options that aren't Justin Jefferson when the Jets are putting so much attention on him will also be important."