MINNEAPOLIS -- On the first play from scrimmage Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, the most productive receiver in football lined up on the left side of the formation. The nearest defender was aligned 7 yards away. So at the snap, the Minnesota Vikings' Justin Jefferson calmly sprinted 13 yards downfield. He cut sharply into an out route, with Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Jones still 5 yards away, and caught Kirk Cousins' well-timed pass for a 16-yard gain.
That general pattern repeated itself three times on the Vikings' opening possession, and another three more times on their second, as Jefferson destroyed single defenders who were either backpedaling in man coverage or sitting deep in a zone. By the time the first quarter ended, Jefferson -- the player every opponent knows is the most dangerous Vikings target on the field -- had caught seven passes for 91 yards with little resistance.
The Bears eventually came to their senses, adding a high safety to Jefferson's side as the game progressed, but he still finished with a career-high 12 receptions on 13 targets for 154 yards. His average separation from the closest defender on those 13 targets was 4.9 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, making the Vikings' 29-22 victory the third game this season in which he has run wild through an opponent.
Despite a pair of quiet outings in Weeks 2 and 3, Jefferson leads the NFL with 547 receiving yards and ranks second with 40 receptions. The only player with more catches is the Los Angeles Rams' Cooper Kupp, whose role the Vikings are attempting to replicate for Jefferson under coach Kevin O'Connell, the Rams' former offensive coordinator.
To the naked eye, Jefferson appears to be benefitting from inexplicable inattention from defenses. Indeed, nearly half of his targets have come with the closest defender 3 or more yards away at the time of the throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and only three targets have gone into tight windows (defined by less than 1 yard of separation). But the better way to put it is the Vikings have, more often than not, won the battle of how to defend him, eschewing traditional "go" routes and conventional pre-snap positioning to capitalize on advantageous looks for midrange passes.
"You don't have to throw it over people's heads all the time to generate explosive [plays]," O'Connell said.
Chicago coach Matt Eberflus, an NFL defensive assistant for 13 seasons before the Bears hired him this spring, said his team was slow to adjust to the way the Vikings shifted Jefferson's positioning and added: "When you get him on the move, it's hard to roll up to him sometimes."
It's true the Vikings have moved Jefferson around the formation this season. For example, here is the breakdown for Sunday, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information:
27 routes run from the left side
14 routes run from the right side
12 routes run from the slot
19 routes run after pre-snap motion
On the opening drive Sunday, however, Jefferson lined up on the left side of the formation for six of his seven receptions. The other came after a fly motion against zone coverage that Cousins targeted on a bootleg pass to the same side. He wasn't hard to find, and the Vikings maximized the Bears' slow realization.
"We just have to do a better job," Eberflus eventually conceded.
Jefferson said last week that he expected the Bears to double-team him often, especially after he had torched the New Orleans Saints and All-Pro cornerback Marshon Lattimore in particular -- for 10 receptions and 147 yards in Week 4. "They don't have a Lattimore on their team," he noted.
But Jefferson's third season in the NFL, and his first with O'Connell, has not always followed a predictable path. He embarrassed the Green Bay Packers by generating an average separation of 4 yards en route to a nine-catch, 184-yard, two-touchdown day. Then the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions combined to hold him to nine receptions for 62 yards, more consistently using their double-teams and goading Cousins to look elsewhere in his progressions.
After the Lions game, which the Vikings won by completing a pair of 28-yard throws to receiver K.J. Osborn on their winning drive, O'Connell spoke to Jefferson about the trials of being a superstar receiver. O'Connell worked hard to convince Jefferson that his presence had opened up the field for Osborn, as well as receiver Adam Thielen and tight end Irv Smith Jr.
"But that's not good enough," O'Connell said at the time. "I have to do a better job giving Justin different aspects of lining up in different spots, different personnel groupings, whatever I need to do to help him because he's an ultra-competitor, and we'll get him going."
Since that point, Jefferson has caught 22 passes for 301 yards, both the highest totals in the NFL over that span. Last week, he felt compelled to post an Instagram photo of a key 39-yard catch against Lattimore. The post, he said, "was for everybody thinking that I slacked off during the matchups" the previous two weeks.
In sum, however, Jefferson has played in five games, and the Vikings have put him in position to be dominant in three of them. The degree to which he has been open on his targets is reflected in NFL Next Gen Stats separation numbers. Jefferson has had at least 3 yards of separation on 44% of his targets, which has translated into 73% of his catches and 66% of his yards. His receptions above expectation, an NFL Next Gen Stat statistic that factors in the difficulty of a catch, ranks No. 31 in the NFL -- another illustration of how open he has been.
His average of 109.4 yards per game, if maintained, would leave him a bit short for his goal of 2,000 yards for the season. But in his first go-round in the "Cooper Kupp" offense, he is producing Cooper Kupp-like numbers. No one can be disappointed in that.