Kevin O’Connell believes opponents are starting to target Justin Jefferson with illegal hits

Justin Jefferson

There’s no question, Justin Jefferson is the Minnesota Vikings‘ team MVP. Without him on the field, coach Kevin O’Connell would have a much tougher time coming up with an effective game plan capable of beating nearly any team (in a one-possession game, a Vikings classic).

Without Jefferson, Kirk Cousins would lose his top target, which considering the Vikings have morphed into a pass-heavy team, attempting the third-most passes in football, would be a massive loss. Jefferson has accounted for 42.5% of Cousins’ yardage total this season.

Just imagine that for a moment, not having 42% of the team’s passing yards — the Vikes certainly wouldn’t have the eighth-highest scoring offense, or the league’s seventh-best passing attack, if it weren’t for Jefferson’s excellence.

So it’s a bit understandable that teams would do their best to limit Jefferson’s impact on gameday. Usually, this is done by coming up with a sound game plan that doesn’t allow the record-breaking receiver to get behind the defense or break loose for massive gains.

Yet, we’ve also seen a different approach by some teams as of late, and coach O’Connell is not happy about what he’s witnessed.

Related: NFL insiders project historic salary for next Justin Jefferson contract

Opponents continue to be flagged/fined for hits on Justin Jefferson

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Minnesota Vikings

On Saturday, during the Vikings’ record-breaking comeback, Jefferson took a hit to the chin by All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, leading to a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. Jefferson briefly had to leave the game as he received a medical evaluation and later returned to action to help make history. Jefferson ultimately had to leave the field twice on Saturday, once from a hit to his chest and the other to his head.

Obviously, when Jefferson hit the turf and stayed down, whatever air the Vikings may have had in their sails quickly dissipated. Everyone knows what Jefferson means not only to the offense but to the entire franchise.

  • Justin Jefferson stats in 2022: 111 receptions, 1,623 receiving yards, 7 TD catches

According to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, opponents have been flagged for penalties against Jefferson in five of the team’s past six games, including on Dec. 4, when Jordan Whitehead was fined by the NFL for another unnecessary roughness penalty. This happened again a week later when Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah lit up Jefferson and once again, drew a fine from the league.

After witnessing the violent nature of the hit, coach O’Connell was livid, feeling Gilmore should be ejected for the egregious nature of his actions. On Monday, O’Connell brought the issue up to the media, expressing more disappointment in how opponents are now trying to take Jefferson out of the game physically by causing an injury, instead of simply outplaying the world-class receiver.

“I think it’s about the fifth or sixth week in a row he took a type of hit that drew a flag. Clearly, there’s an emphasis on the teams we’re playing that some of those hits, they don’t just seem to be by accident at times.”

Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell on how teams are playing Justin Jefferson (H/T to Chris Tomasson)

Clearly, the Vikings coach believes there’s a bit more going on behind the scenes, but there’s not much that can be done. It’s still football. It’s naturally a very physical sport, and aside from continuing to penalize and later fine players for illegal hits, all the Vikings can really do is make referees aware of the frequency with which the face of the franchise is getting destroyed after making another clutch catch.

For now, Jefferson continues to amaze, popping up most times after getting hung out to dry, but one day, he won’t get up so fast, and we can only imagine how mad O’Connell and the rest of the locker room will be.

It doesn’t hurt to try and raise awareness about the NFL”s leading receiver routinely getting popped, as it is still in the league’s best interest to have their biggest superstars healthy and on the field instead of in the medical tent. It’s no different than the rule changes we’ve seen to protect quarterbacks, but really, in this case, what can change?

Related: Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell rips NFL officiating, jokes about practice habits

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