How Green Bay Packers Shut Down Justin Jefferson

Green Bay Packers CB Jaire Alexander
Green Bay Packers CB Jaire Alexander
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 18 - Week 1 was ages ago, but it's hard to forget what Justin Jefferson did to the Green Bay Packers. An Offensive Player of the Year favorite heading into the season, Jefferson immediately lived up to the billing with nine catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. It was a dominant performance that was equal parts his own skill and the Packers repeatedly blowing coverages that left him sprinting across the middle of the field unmarked. The Packers had no real plan for him and he made them pay for it.

Jefferson wasn't so lucky this time around. The Packers pass defense had a plan for him in Week 17. Instead of defaulting to the soft single-high zone structure that got them burned in Week 1, defensive coordinator Joe Barry made a concentrated effort to have more than one body around Jefferson. Barry and the Packers dared the Vikings to beat them with anyone but their star player. There's risk in that, but it was a risk the Packers deemed worth taking considering they had already seen what happens when Jefferson doesn't get extra attention.



Bracketing was one of the Packers' core tactics for slowing down Jefferson, and it started early. The clip above was the first third down of the game. Jefferson lines up in the slot to the offense's right. The Packers start with two deep safeties, then nickel Darnell Savage (26) follows K.J. Osborn from left to right across the formation, all of which might suggest the Packers are either playing 2-Man or some form of Cover-1 with the safety rolling down into the hole post-snap. Instead, the Packers use safety Rudy Ford (20) not as a hole player, but on an inside bracket of Jefferson, giving Jaire Alexander (23) the opportunity to play outside leverage and wall anything off at the sticks. The bracket forces Kirk Cousins to come off of Jefferson and throw to Adam Thielen, whose underneath whip route gets well defended by Rasul Douglas.



The Packers turned to bracketing on a long third down later in the game as well. In this example, the Packers are playing match Cover-4. To the bottom of the screen, Alexander is playing with an outside shade in a press alignment over Jefferson. Weak safety Adrian Amos (31) is playing a deep quarter, but with the No. 2 receiver to his side short and out, Amos has to help on the No. 1 receiver inside and vertical. Amos drives on Jefferson's dig route just as he should, forcing Cousins to look elsewhere and throw short of the sticks.

A defense can't bracket every snap, though. It's more or less a guarantee that the offense gets two coverage defenders for one receiver. When the one receiver is Jefferson, the defense lives with that, but it can come with its consequences if that's the only bullet a defense has. With that in mind, Barry made sure to mix in some cloud coverages with a low corner playing the flat and a safety playing a deep half over the top.



On this third-and-long, the Packers are playing cloud coverage to the trips side of the formation. Alexander is outside handling the flat area, getting a little more depth than usual because of the down-and-distance. If the Vikings had tried running Jefferson on some sort of out-breaker to get him a 1-on-1 YAC opportunity on the sideline, it wouldn't have been open. Instead the Vikings run Jefferson on the vertical route on a Dagger concept. The safety, Ford (20), has so much depth to start with that he isn't ever threatened by Jefferson's route. He can comfortably stay on top and take it away. Cousins eventually makes a stellar effort to scramble for the first down, but if you're the Packers, you take Cousins scrambling on long third downs over giving Jefferson chances to get open every single time. That's a winning formula in the long run (as the final score suggests), even if it bit them on this particular play.



The Packers did the same thing against Jefferson's trips set in this example, this time with Jefferson outside as the No. 1. Alexander comes up late and reroutes Jefferson inside just a smidgen, a nudge that disrupts Jefferson's timing and keeps him just a bit more inside to help the deep safety out. With the second-level defenders getting plenty of depth and staying tethered to Cousins' eyes, the window for Jefferson's in-breaker was never going to be there, prompting Cousins to check down. Alexander and the rest of the Packers defense did a great job swarming on the checkdown to keep the Vikings from converting.

That clip was a taste of the Packers' third and final pillar for putting the clamps on Jefferson: compressing his release space. The Packers did not give Jefferson many free releases. Whether it was true press coverage, jamming in Cover-2, or even rerouting him from the slot, the Packers secondary was hell-bent on making Jefferson work for every single yard he ran.



If you're on social media at all, you have probably seen this clip already. On second-and-10, the Packers are running a late-rotation Cover-3 call with Alexander pressed up against Jefferson to the top of the screen. It was one of the rare instances in which the Packers played single-high in this game. Alexander didn't actually get his hands into Jefferson at the line of scrimmage, but his press alignment made Jefferson think about having to deal with it anyway. Jefferson tried to work Alexander outside, but the former All-Pro corner did an excellent job getting hip-to-hip with Jefferson and tightening the throwing window. Cousins, without much to work with, left the ball too short and gave Alexander the opportunity to knock the ball away.



Hiding Jefferson in the slot didn't deter the Packers from getting in his face. In this second-half example, Jefferson is in the slot at the top of the screen. The Packers are playing zone quarters. The corners are playing top-down with zone eyes and the intermediate defenders are aiming to reroute receivers to help the safeties out before spinning back around to follow the quarterback's eyes. Rookie linebacker Quay Walker (7), who has quietly improved over the second half of this year, is tasked with rerouting Jefferson as the flat player. Walker makes Jefferson bend his route all the way outside the numbers, giving the safety a clear indicator that he wants to drive back inside.

It's a good call and coverage, but Vikings things ensue from there to finish the play out. Not only does Jefferson slip trying hard to course-correct, but Cousins' pass hits a Packers defensive lineman in the shoulder pads on the way out, shooting a dead duck straight into the air for Amos. That's a lucky play for Green Bay, but also the reward for taking away an offense's best player and making them antsy to get something going.

The Packers were right to bet that the Vikings couldn't beat them without their best player. Cousins couldn't create enough magic out of structure, tight end T.J. Hockenson had one of his worst performances as a pro, and the running game never really got going. Green Bay's defense even got a little help from their special teams unit with a kick return touchdown to put the Vikings further behind on the scoreboard. The Packers defense was free to hammer Jefferson over and over again without much repercussion.

This was the kind of game plan the Packers needed heading into the postseason. They have been a good coverage unit for most of the season, but they needed to put on tape that they could adapt to their opponents. They did some of that in Week 16 in the second half against the Dolphins and really kicked it up a notch to keep Jefferson to just one catch. If that's something that continues into Week 18 and potentially the playoffs, the Packers will be cooking with gas.


21 comments, Last at 10 Jan 2023, 1:33am

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 04, 2023 - 11:17am

You have an unclosable video ad for the PA dept of drug and alcohol that totally blocks the intro and the first video.

Points: 0

#2 by Aaron Schatz // Jan 04, 2023 - 11:24am

Try reloading? I logged out and my ad was just a normal banner. We'll try to take care of this. OR, become an FO+ subscriber and get an ad-free experience!

Points: 2

#3 by uosdwiS // Jan 04, 2023 - 1:53pm

I am not sure I've ever seen a defense get in a WR's head as much as GB's did here.* Between the helmet mishap on the sidelines with the ref, the slip and fall on the pick, and the post game comments carping on Jaire stealing the dance after the pass breakup, it is safe to say Jefferson was pretty rattled about the entire affair.


*Cortland Finnegan/Andre Johnson, Beckham/Norman, and Lattimore/Evans, etc. battles royale excluded. 

Points: 1

#4 by Will Allen // Jan 04, 2023 - 2:07pm

Pretty sure the play where you describe Alexander doing a good job of staying hip to hip with Jefferson is the one where Alexander pretty blatantly pulled on Jefferson's jersey, so Jefferson could only get one hand on the ball. Nance also said it was excellent coverage by Alexander. Yes, if you yank Jefferson to the ground by his jersey, and it does not get called, you will have success in covering Jefferson. 

The refs were letting Watson get mugged too, so it wasn't really a competitive advantage, except to the extent that the Packers aren't reliant on Watson, like the Vikings are with Jefferson.

Points: 1

#5 by big10freak // Jan 04, 2023 - 2:29pm

To Will’s point the dbs we’re holding and mugging at will on both sides



Points: 0

#7 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 04, 2023 - 2:31pm

That sort of gets back to Belichick's strategies against the Colts. He preferred games where the DBs got to hold all day, because his system needed it and he didn't need his WRs, but Indy's system didn't need it but did need their WRs.

Points: 2

#18 by ALauff // Jan 06, 2023 - 12:43pm

Yup. As the article outlines, this was a team effort, not a case of a CB shutting down an all-world WR by himself. I'm old enough to remember Equanimeous St. Brown and N'Keal Harry scorching Alexander for 40-yard catches in the same game, and Treylon Burks's 50-yard go route to clinch the TNF contest weeks before that. Let's not pretend Alexander has had some great, shutdown year. This guy talks a ton of trash for putting those kinds of lapses on film. I'm not sure it's wise to give Jefferson added motivation for their battles in the years to come. Put Alexander on Jefferson one-on-one with even mediocre pass-blocking, and I suspect you'd have seen a much different result. I know the player on whom I'd be betting...   

Points: -1

#8 by StraightCashHomey // Jan 04, 2023 - 3:32pm

Thielen seems to have fallen off a cliff this year. 

Points: 2

#11 by dmb // Jan 04, 2023 - 4:23pm

Yeah, I'm a little surprised that wasn't brought up when contrasting this game to Week 1. At the beginning of the year, defenses could be reasonably concerned that Theilen might cause problems if they got too carried away with focusing on Jefferson. At this point, defenses know better.

Points: 2

#13 by hoegher // Jan 04, 2023 - 11:06pm

He's not what he once was, but he is getting open still. Cousins just isn't throwing him the ball as much as he probably should.

I'd probably say throw the ball to Hockenson less. He's done well at times, but then he has games like Sunday which were awful.

Points: 0

#14 by hoegher // Jan 04, 2023 - 11:06pm

He's not what he once was, but he is getting open still. Cousins just isn't throwing him the ball as much as he probably should.

I'd probably say throw the ball to Hockenson less. He's done well at times, but then he has games like Sunday which were awful.

Points: 0

#16 by dmb // Jan 05, 2023 - 10:26am

IDK, I feel like double-covering him, as you've done here, is never needed.

Points: 0

#17 by riri // Jan 06, 2023 - 6:23am

The only times he ever gets open is by finding holes in the zone, or just blown coverages in general. I don't think he has won a single route against man coverage all season

Points: 0

#10 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 04, 2023 - 3:54pm

Jaire IS a pro bowler 

Points: 1

#19 by ALauff // Jan 06, 2023 - 12:51pm

Except...that isn't what he said: "Jefferson tried to work Alexander outside, but the former All-Pro corner..."

Points: 0

#20 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 06, 2023 - 2:25pm

He is a former all pro but I was talking about him this season. 

Points: 0

#15 by andrew // Jan 04, 2023 - 11:27pm

The Vikings still had a top 5 receiver in quick reads, albeit way too late to make a difference.   Will be curious if Jalen Nailor goes on to better days....


Points: 0

#21 by wludford // Jan 10, 2023 - 1:30am

Unforced error on the Vikings, but field conditions were discussed in practice prior to the game and the longer 7-stud cleats were recommended by the coaching staff.  Only KJ Osborn wore them in practice and to start the game and he was the most productive Vikings receiver.  He said the field wasn't too bad in pre-game warm-ups, so most players (including Jefferson) wore their normal cleats and spent at least the first half of the game slipping and sliding on the sloppy field- as you can see in the video clips- as the field got worse by gametime.  

Small margin for error in the NFL, and if you're struggling with your footing against press or making your breaks or having to round off or slow down your breaks because of your footing, you're at a big disadvantage- as the Vikings found out quickly.

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Derrik
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Derrik Klassen. Use promo code DERRIK to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Derrik.