As Nick Sirianni prepares for the Minnesota Vikings, he can’t help but think it’s the first time he’s seen Justin Jefferson play football.
The Eagles coach had just finished his second year as the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive coordinator and decided to pursue a bigger receiver and quarterback prospect after a 7-9 season.
He turned on the national championship game hoping to learn some potential first round picks. Although he misremembered the team LSU played that night, the camera angle resonated with him, confirming Jefferson and Sirianni’s earlier film study.
“I remember putting on the tape and saying, ‘Man, this Justin Jefferson guy is really, really good,'” Sirianni said Thursday. “Like he’s really fast. He has great hands. He runs really good routes. It made the game a little more fun for me. I put the play on, we’re watching the play… and he catches the ball and he puts his foot down quickly and you zoom in on the TV camera and it’s like, “Okay, he’s exactly what I thought he was. He’s got all this quickness.” That close-up gave me that. helped me learn.”
Sirianni will get another close look at Jefferson on Monday night at Lincoln Financial Field. The third-year receiver has become one of the league’s top players after being selected 22nd overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. He finished last season with 108 catches for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“He’s my friend,” Eagles cornerback Darius Slay said. “Great route running, great after the catch, he’s strong on the finish. Player, male. He makes plays. He is a different breed. “Their LSU receivers were doing really well.”
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Jefferson is coming off a dominant Week 1 performance against the Green Bay Packers in which he had nine catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. He had several explosive plays down the field, most of which came on deep pass routes against the Packers’ zone defense.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon also uses a lot of zone. The Eagles’ secondary will need to be on the same page through the receivers to avoid the same fate that Green Bay’s secondary faced. The Eagles overhauled their secondary in the offseason, adding veteran cornerback James Bradberry via free agency and trading for safety CJ Gardner-Johnson earlier this month.
“We’ve got to make sure we execute,” Eagles safety Marcus Epps said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re seeing our right keys, matching our scopes properly, things like that. Obviously, when you play a player like that, you have to make sure you’re at the back.”
Under first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell, formerly the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams, Jefferson is moving into more shape than he was last season. Of Jefferson’s 11 targets against the Packers, four came when the “Z” receiver was off the line of scrimmage, three came when he lined up as the “X” receiver on the line, three came while in the slot and one came when he was in the backfield.
He was injured in three of the four lineups. He caught three passes from the slot for 91 yards, three passes from the “Z” formation for 36 yards and a touchdown and had two catches for 57 yards and a touchdown as an “X” receiver. He caught a pass out of the backfield for no gain.
“He can beat you in different ways,” Gannon said. “When you watch him play, he’s not a one-dimensional guy. He can remove the roof, he can beat you from below, and after he catches you, he can beat you with yards.”
“They do a really good job of deploying it in different ways. That’s why it’s hard to plan for her to always have two guys on top of her. It will be a good test for us and we will be ready for it.”
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Even though the Eagles were a zone-heavy team under Gannon, there were times when Slay followed the No. 1 receivers to adjust in man coverage throughout the game. The 31-year-old corner has developed a reputation for making top plays early in his career, but Jefferson may not be an option for the Eagles due to different alignments.
For Bradberry, learning the routes Jefferson typically runs every layup is the difference maker this week.
“For me specifically, I’m trying to learn route concepts from where he’s lined up,” he said. “If it lands in a slot, I try to find out what its route tree is from there. If he stays outside, I try to find out what his route tree is from there.”
Slay said he’s not worried about Jefferson matching up with Bradberry or slot cornerback Avonte Maddox.
“It doesn’t matter,” Slay said. “We could do whatever we needed. We have a great nickel, we have a great safety and another great [outside] corner, so we can do everything.”
Inquirer Eagles beat reporters EJ Smith and Josh Tolentino preview the team’s Week 2 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Look Inquirer.com/EaglesGameday