Whereas last week there may have been some question as to who the Eagles had to stop (Mac Jones), there is no question this week: Justin Jefferson—an angry, vengeful Justin Jefferson.
Last season in the Eagles’ 24-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings, cornerback Darius Slay held Jefferson, 24, to one catch for five yards on five targets. Overall, the Eagles’ defense held the dangerous Jefferson in check for six catches on 12 targets for 48 yards.
On Thursday, before a national audience, the Eagles will need that kind of game from Slay again when they host Jefferson and the Vikings in their home opener at Lincoln Financial Field.
Slay covered Jefferson on 17 plays. He shut down the side of the field Jefferson was on.
In fact, Slay had more receptions in that game (two interceptions) than receptions he gave up to Jefferson (1).
Eagles’ defensive coordinator Sean Desai is well aware of the good job Slay did on Jefferson.
“Yeah, obviously he did,” Desai said. “Really the whole Eagles defense and the whole team played really well in that game. It’s a credit to all those guys that were on that field. They really took to dominating their matchups and their one-on-one situations and winning in rush and coverage.
“A lot of that stuff is going to carry over in terms of our philosophy, what we want to do from a front perspective and disrupt things, and from a coverage perspective win. We always talk about owning that hard hat. To Slay’s credit, he’s done a bunch of that grunt work in the back. That always helps when you have a guy that wants that hard hat.”
The Eagles will be in an interesting fix Thursday, with Desai looking to juggle a lineup that will be without corner James Bradberry (concussion/ribs), linebacker Nakobe Dean (foot) and safety Reed Blankenship (ribs) due to injury. It looks like Josh Jobe will make his first NFL start in replacing Bradberry, Justin Evans may team with Terrell Edmunds in replacing Blankenship, or possibly Sydney Brown, while Dean’s absence puts Desai in the ugly scenario of going with Christian Elliss or Nicholas Morrow in replacing Dean to pair with Zach Cunningham at linebacker.
It looks like the Eagles will be compensating in the second and third tiers of their defense possibly all night.
Desai publicly said this week he believes in each replacement.
“Oh, yeah, I’m extremely confident and comfortable, really all the guys that we’ve prepared out there, and Josh being one of them,” Desai said. “He’s had a really good camp. We’re looking forward to him doing well. He did a great job in the situation he was put in in the game. Really, he showed kind of his mentality and his approach, which is a thing we really like about him.”
In the Vikings’ 20-17 loss to Tampa Bay in the season opener, Jefferson caught nine passes on 12 targets for 150 yards, averaging 16.7 yards a catch. But seven of those nine catches came in the first half for 138 yards, while the Bucs’ defense put the clamps on the Minnesota offense in the second half, holding Jefferson to just two catches on two targets for 12 yards.
For the Eagles to win Thursday night, the 32-year-old Slay will once again need to win his private war against the best receiver in the game.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.