Vikings WR Justin Jefferson presents huge challenge for Patriots defense

Vikings WR Justin Jefferson presents huge challenge for Patriots defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The New England Patriots defense hasn't played against many elite wide receivers this season, but that will change in a major way over the final seven weeks, beginning with an extraordinarily tough matchup Thursday night.

The Minnesota Vikings are next up on the Patriots schedule and will host New England in the third and final game of the NFL's Thanksgiving slate.

Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson arguably is the top player at his position.

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He ranks No. 4 in the league with 72 receptions, No. 2 in yards with 1,093 and No. 3 in targets with 105. He also has hauled in four touchdowns. Two weeks ago Jefferson tallied 10 receptions for 193 yards and a touchdown in a 33-30 overtime win against the Buffalo Bills on the road.

This insane grab on fourth down late in the fourth quarter was the best catch of the season so far:

What has Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seen of Jefferson since the 23-year-old wideout debuted as a rookie in 2020?

"He's been phenomenal," Belichick told reporters Tuesday. "Of course, we haven't seen him in the NFC, but watching him a little bit in the offseason then looking at him now, yeah he was no secret. Been hard to envision the amount of success he's had in three years. His numbers are historic. So, he's a great player."

One of the most impressive aspects of Jefferson's skill set is his ability to win 50-50 balls and make catches even when the defense does a great job covering him.

"Yeah, I mean some of the catches he's made you couldn't cover him much better than he's being covered, and he comes down with the ball," Belichick explained.

"But they move him around. Doubling him sounds a lot easier than it really is. You've got to find him, got to get the right guys on him and then there's some other guys to worry about, too. It's not like he's all they've got. You don't pay attention to (Dalvin) Cook and he has an 80-yard touchdown, whatever it was against Buffalo. So, he can kill you in a hurry, too."

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Jefferson isn't just a big-play wide receiver. He racks up a ton of yards. In fact, the former LSU star has 20 100-yard games in his career, which is the most ever for a wideout over his first three pro seasons. Six of those 100-yard games have come in 2022.

The difficulty of having to defend a wide receiver like Jefferson and a running back of Dalvin Cook's caliber is not lost on Patriots safety Adrian Phillips.

"It doesn't really get too much worse than that," Phillips told reporters Tuesday. "You got a guy (in Jefferson) who's on pace to have 2,000 yards or something like that, and then you've got Dalvin who's been doing this for a long time and has been a matchup problem who can score from any part or position on the field.

"It makes it hard. They have an underneath and over the top option. You just have to know where those guys are at all times."