Coming into Sunday’s game with the Minnesota Vikings, the Kansas City Chiefs had a unique challenge: stopping Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who leads the NFL with 5,396 receiving yards since being drafted in the first round (22nd overall) of 2020’s NFL Draft.
What makes Jefferson special isn’t just his ability to win on any route. He can also win from any alignment. Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell moves him all over the field, forcing defenses to have individual coverage checks for each spot where he might line up. This allows O’Connell to get him optimal matchups against players who have no business defending against him.
But during its 27-20 win, Kansas City managed to limit Jefferson’s production. He left the game with a hamstring injury during the fourth quarter — but until then, the Chiefs had limited him to just three catches for 28 yards on six targets. During his 55-game career, it was just the 12th time he had been limited to just three receptions — and only the seventh time that he had been held to less than 30 yards
How did the Chiefs do it? Let’s see.
Right from the beginning, the Chiefs showed they were going to play two safeties over Jefferson at all times — even against heavier run personnel. They limited the amount of open space available by consistently having two sets of eyes on him. They also played a fair amount of zone coverage against Jefferson, being careful to shift bodies toward his routes.
But Kansas City didn’t remain static within this structure; the team still found creative ways to blitz Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins.
(new recording software, sorry for the bugs)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 9, 2023
Early tendency shift from the Chiefs. KC was basing out of 2H to the UC stuff, obv in counters of what Jefferson provides. Instead of the MOFO looks to start game, Spags sends both CBs to condensed formation while still getting to C2 pic.twitter.com/e3BaFaH7RM
On this play, Kansas City sends cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie from the edge, dropping some defensive linemen to maintain Cover 2. Since the Vikings are in a condensed formation, neither has to travel very far to get to Cousins; his throw goes nowhere.
For the Chiefs, finding creative ways to play zone coverage — while sending pressure — was an effective strategy.
Coverage at the second level
The linebackers — particularly Drue Tranquill — also played a part.
This is just awesome stuff by Drue Tranquill. Not sucked in by the fake, has great zone vision on Cousins, sees Jefferson get inside, takes away window entirely. He and CJ being maniacs make this play work.— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 9, 2023
Probably the best coverage play by a KC LB since DJ maybe? pic.twitter.com/CNA3psTyVB
This play is the game’s best example. The Vikings run play-action, trying to suck in the linebackers to give Cousins a throwing window to hit Jefferson on a curl route. But Tranquill doesn’t bite on the fake. Instead, he gets into the throwing window — effectively destroying the play. Cousins is forced to hang on to the ball, which eventually leads to an offensive holding call.
I can’t say this definitively, but it feels like Kansas City told its linebackers to shade toward Jefferson in their zone drops. But whether or not it was a part of the game plan, linebackers played a big part in stopping Jefferson — particularly on play-action passes.
Always being prepared
Against Jefferson, the Chiefs didn’t have a single coverage bust. They were prepared for every formation and alignment in which the wideout was used. In this way, they were always able to double him — regardless of the offensive structure.
Playing Jefferson is so unique because of how many spots he'll align/motion into. Each spot requires individual coverage checks, which makes players like Sneed/McDuffie so valuable— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 10, 2023
Heads into backfield, KC plays him inside-out with Reid, Willie shades to hook. Man cov elsewhere pic.twitter.com/SmiYa29xjr
This play is an example of the unique ways the Vikings use Jefferson. They motion him into the backfield — which usually causes the defense to have a panic attack — but the Chiefs are ready. They still double him — with safety Justin Reid and McDuffie playing him inside-out — and also shade linebacker Willie Gay Jr. to his side of the field, preventing Jefferson from turning around in an open zone void. The back side dig route does open up, but Cousins gets to it late — and it’s incomplete.
So the Vikings had a very hard time getting one-on-one matchups for Jefferson. It finally took going to an empty formation to get the Chiefs into that look.
3rd and long, MIN got KC into Empty and in single-high. Kirk's got free access to the fade from Jefferson (#2 in Trips side), but excellent job over the roof by Edwards to still cloud (great play ID) and McDuffie plays him well from the inside— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 10, 2023
KC was totally ready for this pic.twitter.com/Wf0y0ODL8P
Defenses generally only have 1-2 empty checks — and on this play, the Chiefs' check is to get into man coverage with one safety over the top. With this look, O’Connell calls for Jefferson to run a fade route from the slot, taking advantage of McDuffie’s inside leverage.
But the Chiefs still find a way to give safety help to Jefferson. Safety Mike Edwards displays incredible play recognition, completely shading to Jefferson’s side after the snap. He knows the slot fade is coming, so he gets on top to take away the throwing window. McDuffie also plays with perfect inside leverage; Jefferson doesn’t have enough space to jump for a contested pass.
Still stopping the run
With the Chiefs playing two high safeties, fewer bodies were available to stop the run; even against heavier personnel, Kansas City still stuck to the alignment. But the Chiefs were nonetheless able to stop the run from these light boxes. The Vikings averaged 3.9 yards per carry — and their main running back Alexander Mattison produced only 3.3 yards per carry.
I'm about 1/2 through this game and I'm not sure KC played Single-high more than 1-2 times. Heavy 2H game— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 10, 2023
This was due to wanting a cloud/double on JJ, which gave MIN favorable run looks, but KC defended run from 2H well
I'm really enjoying the Derrick Nnadi renaissance pic.twitter.com/qrO1CaLrPu
A lot of players deserve a shout-out for their performances against the run. But I specifically want to mention defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi, who has had a rough couple of years battling injuries. As his snaps have decreased, his play has declined. So far this year, however, he’s playing great football. He appears to be healthier — showing more strength at the point of attack — and his ability to plug gaps has been invaluable.
The bottom line
Stopping a player as talented as Jefferson never comes down to one player. It takes an entire defense. With his unique ability to win from any spot on a football field, a defense has to be prepared for many different things. On Sunday, Kansas City’s defense did exactly that. There wasn’t a single coverage breakdown against the star wideout.
It helped having two cornerbacks like Sneed and McDuffie. When Jefferson was on the outside, Sneed could defend him with physicality and length. When he was in the slot, the more agile McDuffie could cover more ground. While both also benefitted from safety help over the top, every team does that with Jefferson. Sneed and McDuffie just didn’t need as much as other cornerbacks might.
Committing more bodies to stopping Jefferson should theoretically hurt a defense’s ability to stop the run — but the Chiefs had no such issues. While the Vikings don’t have a dynamic running attack, they tried hard to punish Kansas City for keeping two safeties over the top — but the Chiefs’ front seven did an excellent job limiting those runs. Frequently getting Minnesota into third-and-long also made it easier to play exotic coverages on Jefferson, which limited Minnesota’s offense.
This matchup was a great example of how to build a game plan for the playoffs. When an offense must be hyper-focused on stopping a particular player, it must be able to adapt to the many ways the opposing team will use that player.
On Sunday, Kansas City proved it can build a plan to stop a team’s elite wide receiver. In the coming games against wideouts like Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and Ja’Marr Chase, this will be critical.