The Lions’ offense is demolishing the Vikings’ defense on fourth down

Jared Goff and the Detroit Lions are proving to be historically great on fourth down against the Minnesota Vikings.

It’s been a very long time since we’ve been able to talk about the Detroit Lions’ offense in a historical sense that wasn’t a historically negative sense, but these are not the same old Lions. A revamped run game that has every defense on edge, in which Detroit is successfully deploying just about every run scheme known to man, sets the tone for quarterback Jared Goff — who, all of a sudden, is pretty fierce when using play-action.

Not that you need a great run game to successfully use play-action — there are far too many examples to the contrary to bend to that old canard on a no-matter-what basis — but the Lions’ case, it’s working like a charm.

The most prominent exhibit of this would be the Lions’ overall scoring success.

The most recent exhibit of this would be what the Lions did to the Minnesota Vikings in the first quarter (plus one play) of Week 3’s matchup.

Detroit failed to convert any of its third-down conversions — they were 0-fot-4 — but they did convert all three of the fourth-down attempts they tried.

When one of Goff’s targets is Amon-Ra St. Brown, that’s generally going to be a problem for defenses. This was the first fourth-down conversion; 30 yards on fourth-and-5.

The second fourth-down conversion came with 1:53 left in the first quarter, and this was just running back Jamaal Williams blowing through Minnesota’s defense for a five-yard gain on fourth-and-1, and check out the block by St. Brown.

The third fourth-down conversion game at the start of the second quarter. Another play-action fake, another frozen defense, and another successful try.

The Lions came into this game with the NFL’s eighth-best offense by DVOA. At this rate, you can expect a jump for an offense that has been one of the league’s biggest surprises this season.

Vikings Justin Jefferson checks in with diamond-encrusted gloves

Justin Jefferson of the Vikings is a gem

Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings wasn’t about to let a college wide receiver upstage an NFL star.

A day after Marvin Harrison Jr. showed up for Ohio State’s romp over Wisconsin in an Apple Watch and Louis Vuitton cleats, the Vikings star wideout proved he is a gem.

Check out these gloves, you know the ones that feature diamonds in them as the Vikings got ready to play the Detroit Lions.

Eagles CB Darius Slay destroys Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and the Vikings’ offense

Eagles cornerback Darius Slay opened up a can on Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and the Vikings’ formerly dynamic offense.

In their season opener against the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings went off on offense to the tune of a 23-7 thrashing. Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson particularly tortured Green Bay’s defense, which had the weird idea to put everybody but Jaire Alexander, their best cornerback, wherever Jefferson went.

Jefferson’s response as one of the NFL’s best receivers was to catch nine passes on 11 targets for 184 yards and two touchdowns.

The Packers didn’t have a plan for Justin Jefferson, and it showed

The Eagles came into Monday night with a different plan against the Vikings: They were going to put their best cornerback (Darius Slay) on Jefferson as much as possible. Sounds like a radical strategy, but it worked to perfection.

Per Next Gen Stats, Jefferson caught one pass on five targets with Slay as the closest defender, and Slay intercepted two of those targets.

Slay’s first pick came early in the second half. Quarterback Kirk Cousins may have expected Jefferson to work across Slay’s face, but that didn’t happen, and Slay had a very easy pick.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, Cousins attempted a fadeaway jumper to Jefferson in the left corner of the end zone, and Slay took advantage of the fact that Cousins just couldn’t get enough on it.

At this rate, other NFL teams might try putting their best cornerbacks on Minnesota’s best receiver. You just never know.

Four people to watch in Monday night’s Eagles-Vikings game

Touchdown Wire’s Laurie Fitzpatrick points out four people to watch in Monday night’s Philadelphia Eagles-Minnesota Vikings game.

Ever since their NFC Championship matchup in the 2017 season, the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles have their games circled on the calendar. With the Vikings taking the last two wins (2018, 2019) the Eagles will be looking for revenge.

Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni on Monday Night Football vs. Minnesota: “I remember there was a pretty special game here back in 2017 — Vikings vs. the Eagles in the NFC Championship game. [Defensive coordinator Jonathan] Gannon still talks about it, about how loud it was, how intense it was.”

Keep in mind that this is the first home game at the ‘The Linc’, Lincoln Financial Field for the Eagles.  It can get pretty intimidating playing in front of the Eagles fans, especially with the expectations that come with the 2022 season.

There are a few players to look out for on both sides of the ball, so let’s get to it!

The Packers didn’t have a plan for Justin Jefferson, and it showed

The Packers let Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson destroy their defense. Here’s the evidence that Green Bay didn’t have a plan for Jefferson — at all.

Jaire Alexander is the Green Bay Packers’ best cornerback. But he was injured in 2021, missing all but the first four games of the season due to a shoulder injury. As a result, Alexander missed both Packers games against their NFC North opponent, the Minnesota Vikings.

So, maybe the Packers’ defensive staff forgot that Alexander was available in Week 1 of the 2022 season to cover Justin Jefferson, one of the best receivers in the league?

That’s certainly what it looked like. In a 23-7 Vikings win, Jefferson went all thermonuclear against the Pack, as is his wont. He caught nine passes on 11 targets for 184 yards and two touchdowns. That 184 yards, by the way, was just 11 yards less than the 195 passing yards Aaron Rodgers had in this entire game.

But we digress.

Back to the Packers’ defense, and the plan — such as it was — for covering Jefferson. After the game, head coach Matt LaFleur was quizzed about why Alexander wasn’t following Jefferson all around the field.

“Yeah, it doesn’t necessarily always work that way in terms of — if you just commit to playing man coverage the whole game, sure, you can do it. But they do a nice job of putting them in different positions, whether it’s in the slot, whether it’s motioning. It seemed like he was in motion quite a bit, just moving him all over the place. You’ve got to give them credit. They put him in premier spots and attacked our coverage well, and certainly we had a couple blown coverages, as well, where we’re cutting him loose, and if there’s anybody you don’t want to cut loose, it’s No. 18. We’ll go back and look at the tape. Obviously, again, we have to coach so much better.”

The Packers’ plan was to zone it up a lot, and have different defenders on Jefferson. This certainly was a pleasant surprise for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.

“I would be a little surprised, yep,” Cousins said when asked if he expected Jefferson to get better and more compressed coverage. “Whenever he has a game at that magnitude, not because of him, but you expect him to get taken way a little bit, and he will at times. Our coaches are trying to find ways to still keep him involved, and we were able to do that today. So it’s going to be kind of a conversation we had a lot last season, and we’ll have this season each week of how does he get defended.”

It was not a pleasant surprise for Alexander.

Based on my charting, Alexander was not the closest defender to Jefferson on any of his 11 targets. New Vikings head coach and offensive play-designer Kevin O’Connell, fresh off his two-year tenure as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams, did a masterful job of aligning and motioning Jefferson away from Green Bay’s most formidable pass defender. LaFleur brought this up, of course (one offensive coach appreciating another offensive coach), and it certainly showed up on the field. Here’s how the Jefferson distribution looked on Sunday:

Safety Darnell Savage, Jr.: Three targets, two catches, 57 yards, one touchdown.

Cornerback Rasul Douglas: Three targets, three catches, 75 yards.

Cornerback Eric Stokes: Two targets, two catches, 25 yards, one touchdown.

Linebacker Quay Walker: One target, one catch, 22 yards.

Edge-rusher Preston Smith: One target, one catch, five yards.

Safety Adrian Amos: One target, no catches.

So, When you have a rookie linebacker in Walker, and a veteran edge-rusher in Smith, covering the other team’s alpha-dog receiver more than Alexander did, that would seem to be less than an ideal plan. Moreover, the strategy to play a bunch of zone against Jefferson really didn’t work because again, O’Connell did some great stuff to beat it.

So, where did the Packers get it so wrong? Let’s go to the tape.

Touchdown Wire’s 2022 NFL season predictions

Doug Farrar, Laurie Fitzpatrick, and Luke Easterling fill out Touchdown Wire’s predictions for the 2022 NFL season.

Everybody does predictions before the start of every season in every sport, and of course, we who blather on about the NFL are no exception. Last year, Doug Farrar, Laurie Fitzpatrick, and Mark Schofield filled out the Touchdown Wire predictions sheet, and while the predictions made sense, we all whiffed on a few things — most notably, the Super Bowl teams.

Now, with Mark off to pastures anew (see you ’round, old friend), we’ve enlisted Luke Easterling, the shot-caller for both Bucs Wire and Draft Wire, and an estimable football mind in his own right. Luke and Doug also host the weekly “4-Down Territory” video, which you should definitely check out.

With all that said, let’s get to the predictions. Here’s how we see the 2022 NFL season shaking out — from division winners to Super Bowl champion to a plethora of individual awards.

The biggest question for every NFL team in the 2022 season

Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar asks — and tries to answer — the most pressing questions for every NFL team as the 2022 season begins.

No matter how great any team is, every team has its share of questions to answer when a new season begins. The 1968 Baltimore Colts looked unbeatable until they met the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, and Jets running back Matt Snell exploited the weak right side of Baltimore’s defensive front over and over on the way to one of the greatest upsets in sports history. The 2007 New England Patriots were unbeatable until they lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII because their interior offensive line couldn’t handle the Giants’ NASCAR pressure packages.

No matter how great your team is, one little thing can turn everything upside down.

Conversely, teams that may look hopeless are actually building credibly to the future, and that will show up on the field more than anybody might think. And then there are the NFL’s stragglers — the teams for whom there is little present hope, and the primary question is, “How do we transcend our multiple weaknesses to be at least competitive?”

Each of the NFL’s 32 teams have questions to answer coming into the 2022 season, which of course is right around the corner. So here, for your consideration, are the most pressing questions every NFL team will — and must — answer in the new season.

What exactly are the Vikings getting in ex-Eagles WR Jalen Reagor?

The Vikings traded for ex-Eagles first-round receiver Jalen Reagor on Wednesday. What does the tape show regarding Reagor’s NFL potential?

With the 21st pick in the 2020 NFL draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected TCU receiver Jalen Reagor. One pick later, the Minnesota Vikings took LSU receiver Justin Jefferson. In the two seasons since, Jefferson has firmly established himself as one of the league’s best receivers, while Reagor has… well, not.

Perhaps Reagor can pick up a few points from Jefferson, as the two first-round receivers are now teammates. On Wednesday, the Eagles sent Reagor to Minnesota in a trade. Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Philly gets 2023 seventh-round NFL draft pick and a 2024 conditional fourth-round pick that would downgrade to a fifth-round pick if certain statistical marks are not met.

When you’re willing to cut bait with a first-round pick just two full seasons into his NFL career, that’s not a great sign. Over those two seasons, Reagor had caught 65 passes on 110 targets for 697 yards and three touchdowns. In 2021 alone, Jefferson caught 108 passes on 163 targets for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Reagor is already in the “prove-it” phase of his career, while Jefferson has already proven everything he needs to. With Jefferson as the obvious No. 1 in the Vikings’ offense, it’s worth seeing how new head coach Kevin O’Connell and his staff can make the most out of Reagor as a second (or third) banana.

One thing Reagor will have to clean up are the drops. Last season, he was responsible for five dropped passes, and some of them were real howlers. Against the Giants in Week 12, Reagor (No. 18) is trying to work with quarterback Jalen Hurts on a scramble drill. Reagor does get open over time, but you can’t raise your hand to your quarterback with the full Keyshawn Johnson “Throw me the damn ball” thing, and then just muff it like this. This also brings up Reagor’s issues in gaining separation from coverage.

Reagor can be both athletic with his routes, and acrobatic to get the ball, as he showed on this play in the same game.

Reagor can also be an effective runner on sweeps and other backfield color plays, as he showed on this 12-yard run against the Chiefs in Week 4. He’s gained 58 yards on 14 carries through his NFL career, and since O’Connell comes straight from the Sean McVay tree (he was the Rams’ offensive coordinator in 2020 and 2021), you’d expect to see some offshoots of that sweep game, which in McVay’s hands has become one of the NFL’s most effective.

And while he’s nobody’s idea of an elite route-runner in the Jefferson mold, Reagor does have the raw speed to either beat a defender on a deep crosser (this 24-yard catch against the Cowboys in Week 3)…

…or to take a simple screen for a 34-yard gain by just blasting through space (Week 15 against the Commanders).

Reagor is not the transcendent talent the Eagles thought they were getting when they made him a first-round pick. But if the Vikings maximize his abilities (speed, quickness, base agility), and minimize his liabilities (focus drops, route correctness), they could have an interesting new piece in an offense that O’Connell has said he wants to open up and make more expansive.

In that capacity, Reagor could make the most of things sooner than later.

The NFL has announced its top 20 players for 2022. Here’s how it should look.

The NFL has announced its list of the top 20 players in the league — in alphabetical order. Here’s how it should go numerically.

Every year, the NFL polls players to rank other players, and from that, there’s the league’s list of the top 100 players. It’s always a controversial list, and there are a lot of questions regarding how much the players actually are involved, but any subjective ranking in any endeavor is going to annoy more people than not. That’s just the way things go.

This year, the NFL has already announced its top players from 100-21, and we’ve already expressed our own issues with the bottom of that list.

The final list of players 20-1 will be shown on the NFL Network on Sunday, August 28, in a three-hour show starting at 8:00 p.m. EST. And just to whet your appetite for that, the NFL has announced the 20 best players in alphabetical order.

Based on our own list of the NFL’s 101 best players (which Mark Schofield and myself split into two parts here and here), here’s how we think the NFL’s top 20 players should look in numerical order.

Raiders trade Nick Mullens to the Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have traded for Nick Mullens, sending the Raiders a conditional seventh-round pick.

Remember when, just a week ago, someone made the case that Kellen Mond had inched closer to winning the backup quarterback job in Minnesota?

Funny thing about that…

The Vikings have executed a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders, sending a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2024 NFL draft to Las Vegas for quarterback Nick Mullens.

Tom Pelissero, who covers the league for the NFL Network, broke the news on Monday morning:

After performing well in Minnesota’s first preseason game — against the Raiders — Mond threw a pair of interceptions against the San Francisco 49ers this past weekend. On one of those interceptions, coming on a 3rd and 1 situation, it is hard to see what Mond was thinking:

For the Raiders, the relationship between Jarrett Stidham and head coach Josh McDaniels, as well as Stidham’s familiarity with McDaniels’ offense, put Stidham in a position to win the backup job.

Mullens now offers the Vikings a bit more stability behind starter Kirk Cousins, given his years of experience. He also has spent time under Kyle Shanahan, and with head coach Kevin O’Connell and offensive coordinator Wes Phillips now in Minnesota — two branches off the Shanahan/Sean McVay coaching tree — that experience will make Mullens a solid fit in Minnesota.

Under the terms of the deal, Mullens must be active for one game in 2022:

Perhaps the bigger question now is, will Mond?