Vikings' Justin Jefferson proves he's up for a starring role

MINNEAPOLIS -- Wide receiver depth and reliance upon it has become a peculiar entity for the Minnesota Vikings in recent years. Often touted, especially in times like the preseason and training camp, but rarely relied upon outside of emergency situations.

Minnesota has not needed to deviate much from Adam Thielen (49 catches, 646 yards, 11 touchdowns) and rookie Justin Jefferson, who leads the team in receiving with 918 yards on 52 catches along with six touchdowns. Jefferson accounts for 33% of the Vikings' passing offense, the third-highest total in the NFL, and Thielen is at 23%.

Facing the Carolina Panthers on Sunday without Thielen, who remains on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Vikings tapped into their receiver depth out of necessity. In a 28-27 victory, quarterback Kirk Cousins had no problem spreading around his 45 passes.

Four different pass-catchers had at least seven receptions for 60 yards. Chad Beebe, who went from muffing a punt to scoring the winning touchdown in a matter of minutes, had seven catches for 63 yards. Going into the game, Beebe had seven receptions since Week 3.

Bisi Johnson, who was the Vikings' No. 2 wide receiver until Jefferson's emergence, matched his season total in receptions (seven) for 74 yards, and tight end Kyle Rudolph had seven for 68 yards.

"We did a lot of growing up [Sunday], which was awesome to see," Beebe said. "It'll be exciting going forward when we get Adam back. I feel like our group got a lot better today and there's a lot of exciting things ahead."

The production from receivers further down the depth chart should ebb upon Thielen's return, which coach Mike Zimmer said he's "hopeful" will be Sunday against the 1-10 Jacksonville Jaguars. But the Vikings (5-6) will want to see the spike they got from Jefferson continue.

Jefferson became Minnesota's No. 1 receiving threat and saw double-digit targets (13) for the third time this season. And he had his second multi-touchdown day, with seven catches for 70 yards and two scores.

"We knew he was going to get a lot of targets this week just because of the fact that Thielen wasn't there," Zimmer said. "Quite honestly, they rotated the coverage to him several times throughout the ballgame. We kind of anticipated some of those things, were able to move him around a little more, which really helps because it makes the defense have to adjust to where he's at.

"But it's kind of been going on quite a bit now for the last four or five games. It gives you the confidence when you see him able to do it in practice would be the best way to say it."

Thielen leads the NFL with 10 receiving TDs inside the 20-yard line, and Jefferson had no problem filling the void in the red zone. After scoring a 12-yard touchdown when left one-on-one with a Carolina defensive back near the goal line in the first quarter, Jefferson had a 10-yard TD catch in the fourth.

"Great job versus Cover 0. The first touchdown just went inside across his defender's face, and then the second one, again, is just trying to be patient with him and let him run his route," Cousins said. "He did a great job finishing the play because linebackers there, they're coming, and I've seen those throws caught, and he's out at the 1-yard line. And he fought for the front pylon and got us in, and that's just a great play by him."

Jefferson's longest reception of the day was 18 yards, a departure from the deep shots off play-action that usually come his way. The added attention is something Jefferson has been anticipating for weeks, working to perfect different releases and footwork to keep defenses guessing.

That preparation paid off in Week 12.

"I definitely noticed, especially towards the end of the game," Jefferson said. "We were in the two-minute drive and they were playing the robber defense where the nickel will come press me and have the corner in the back. They did that and I haven't seen that since high school. It was a little weird to see."

Jefferson's surge in targets and the overall reliance on the passing game came on a day when Dalvin Cook had his second-fewest rushing yards in a game this season (61). And it was only the second time this season Cook didn't have a rushing touchdown.

Minnesota showed it was possible for its top two receivers to generate big production in the same game against the Houston Texans in Week 4 (Thielen 114 yards; Jefferson 103) and the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11 (Thielen 123; Jefferson 86). The Vikings have gotten comfortable running deep crossing routes with Thielen and Jefferson, often using one to get a safety to bite on a route, which in turn leaves the other open for a one-on-one matchup.

Sunday showed that more of the offense should run through Jefferson. That yielded big results in a must-win game. Over the next five weeks as the Vikings continue their push for a wild-card spot, they have to rely on Jefferson.

"I love it, just being targeted a lot," Jefferson said. "It definitely boosts your confidence, especially if you're on a rhythm just catching short catches and moving the ball -- as long as Kirk is trusting me and giving me the opportunity to make those catches. We're definitely working with each other week in and week out, and we're getting better and better each week."