Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak unleashed rookie receiver Justin Jefferson during Sunday’s 31-30 loss to the Titans, giving quarterback Kirk Cousins another weapon to balance the passing game opposite Adam Thielen.
But Jefferson’s seven catches for 175 yards in his first NFL start and the franchise’s biggest rookie receiving day behind Randy Moss and Sammy White were not enough.
“It’s a bright future,” Jefferson said postgame via videoconference. “We just need to figure it out. Just some things that we’re doing that are not right, and we’re making critical errors in the game, especially late in the game.”
On his first NFL touchdown, Jefferson danced at the Titans 5-yard line and into the end zone, nothing but open field behind him after he burned Johnathan Joseph on a 71-yard reception to give his team a 24-12 lead in the third quarter.
Jefferson’s breakout game, trailing only White’s 210 receiving yards in 1976 and Moss’ 190 yards in 1998 for rookies in franchise history, is the silver lining after a humming Vikings offense fizzled in the last two possessions of the one-point loss.
The offense’s 464 yards and 30 points still marked massive improvement from the first two losses, which sparked Kubiak to make a change last week by removing Bisi Johnson and inserting Jefferson into the starting lineup.
“[Jefferson] had a good week of practice,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Caught a lot of balls this last week in practice, so I think that carried over.”
Jefferson, the 22nd pick in April’s draft, pointed to one teaching moment in the second quarter during his only miss among eight catchable targets. Having to slow down near the end zone to track Cousins’ deep pass, Jefferson let Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler catch up for the deflection.
On the sideline afterward, Thielen told Jefferson not to wait for the pass to drop over his shoulder, but to turn, leap and fight for it.
“Adam had came to me and he said, ‘You should’ve went up and got that one,’ ” Jefferson recalled. “And I agreed. Balls like that, it’s kind of difficult to determine if you want to flip your hands or high-point it. But that’s just a learning opportunity, and next time that ball comes the same way, I’ll catch it differently.”
Jefferson has stepped into the big-play void opposite Thielen created when the team traded Stefon Diggs to Buffalo this spring. Suddenly, opposing defenses once again have to worry about two Vikings receivers.
“Of course, teams have been looking at Adam and kind of keeping a safety on Adam,” Jefferson said. “That was just one of the reasons why Coach Kubiak and everybody else on this offense is looking for somebody else to bring big plays to the team. That’s just what I did [Sunday].”