How Justin Jefferson, other top receivers are becoming NFL’s new workhorse backs


Before the NFL became a pass-happy league, teams prioritized getting star running backs the ball 25-30 times a game, believing that eventually the defense would tire from punishment. There are still some workhorse backs in the league, albeit with lighter loads than their predecessors, but if Week 1 is any indication of things to come, modern offenses are looking to run through their No. 1 receivers.

Ten different wide receivers had at least a dozen targets in Week 1, including three who received 15 or more. Compare that to last season, when, according to Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz, a given week featured an average of 7.6 players with at least 12 targets and 1.3 players with 15-plus targets. Those averages are even lower if you don’t include tight ends and running backs.

With defensive schemes trending toward softer coverage and an increased emphasis on illegal contact downfield, it’s becoming easier to get No. 1 receives the ball. Those touches are more valuable than running back carries because either they are downfield or the receiver has space to work with if the ball is thrown short.

In Week 1, the NFL’s five highest-paid wide receivers (not including DeAndre Hopkins, who is serving a six-game suspension) combined for 66 targets, 49 catches, 640 yards and three touchdowns. That doesn’t include Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase, who are still on their rookie contracts and combined for 27 targets, 313 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1. The ways in which offenses are making sure defenses don’t neutralize their No. . 1 receivers aren’t new or revolutionary, but offensive coordinators are using all the tools at their disposal to make sure their top guy touches the ball.

Player Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns Yards/Route Run


























First-year Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell put on a clinic against the Packers in Week 1, moving Jefferson into different positions and creating matchup and defensive rules problems for the Packers’ secondary.

“(The Vikings) do a nice job of putting (Jefferson) in different positions, whether it’s in the slot, whether it’s motioning,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said after the game. “It seemed like he was in motion quite a bit, just moving him all over the place, and you got to give him credit. They put him in premier spots and attacked our coverage well, and certainly, we had a couple of blown coverages as well where we’re cutting them loose. And if there’s anybody you don’t want to cut loose, it’s No. 18.”

According to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, Jefferson went into pre-snap motion on seven snaps against the Packers and was targeted four times on those plays, including a five-yard touchdown reception. This represents only a slight increase from Jefferson’s pre-snap motion rate last season. The biggest difference between last season and Week 1 this season is the rate at which the Vikings lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). In Week 1, the Vikings lined up with three receivers 67 percent of the time, compared to just 42 percent last season. Spreading the defense out makes it harder for it to set double-teams, and it forces defenses to play coverages like Cover 4, a four-deep zone that can feature mismatches benefitting the offense.

6:16 remaining in the second quarter, first-and-10

Here, the Packers played quarters coverage, another term for Cover 4. In quarters, safety has to take the No. 2 (second receiver from the sideline) in man coverage if he goes vertical. The theory is that the safety should be able to hold up with underneath help and a huge cushion. In this example, safety Darnell Savage had a 12-yard cushion and the nickel helping him underneath.

If the quarterback has time for the slot to get vertical, the safety is on his own. And on this play, Kirk Cousins ​​had time. The nickel helped Savage by playing Jefferson’s outside leverage underneath, so Savage could keep inside leverage. However, at the top of his route, Jefferson had Savage completely turned around with a nasty move.

One of the things that makes Jefferson so unique is his ability to make severe cuts right after faking in the opposite direction. Also, credit to Cousins, who kept the play alive with his legs and made this throw over the safety on the opposite side.

“All week, (I was) asking for that matchup,” Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander said after the game. “But it’s not about me. It’s about the team. It’s not about me. If it was my way, you know what I would be doing.”

Why didn’t the Packers just stick their best corner on Jefferson for a majority of snaps? Because unless the defense becomes predictable and just plays man coverage across the board for a majority of snaps — which would present a whole other set of problems — moving Alexander around with Jefferson, especially when Jefferson was in motion as often as he was, would change the structure of the defense and take a massive amount of communication.

A simple way of thinking about it is if a receiver is being doubled and motions across the formation. The two players on him aren’t both going to move with him. One or two players on the other side would have to switch from their original responsibilities to take on that receiver. The defense might even change the coverage entirely. And all of this has to happen quickly because the offense can snap the ball at any point when the motion starts.

Still, after what Jefferson did to the Packers, they’ll have to try something drastically different the next time they play Minnesota. No. 1 receivers force opponents to change the structures of their defenses, and it’s not as simple as loading up the box against a strong running game. Consider how Rams coach Sean McVay makes sure Cooper Kupp remains a viable option despite everyone in the world knowing that he’s going to get the ball. This is possible in part because Kupp gets a lot of his targets on “choice” routes from stack alignments.

From Kyle Shanahan’s playbook:

0:27 remaining in the first quarter, second-and-10

Here, Kupp was lined up in close proximity with the outside receiver, so the defense can’t press him. Without press, he has a clear vision of the entire secondary, and he’s one of the best at finding spaces in zones. Kupp also runs these choice routes after being put in pre-snap motion, which is another way a lot of play callers create advantages for their top receivers.

According to Schatz, Tyreek Hill ran the NFL’s third-most routes after pre-snap motion last season, with the Chiefs, and that trend continued with the Dolphins in Week 1. Head coach Mike McDaniel put Hill in motion so that he could hit the line of scrimmage at full speed. He’s already the fastest player in the league, so you can imagine the stress it puts on corners when Hill has a running start. It’s like giving Valtteri Bottas a ten-yard runway at the starting line of a Formula One race.

6:48 remaining in the first quarter, first-and-10

Here, the Patriots were in man coverage. Cornerback Jonathan Jones had the difficult task of following Hill in flight motion.

Hill got to the line of scrimmage at full speed, ran 18 yards downfield and then slammed on the breaks to run a comeback. He created five yards of separation, giving Tua Tagovailoa an easy throw to the sideline.

Coordinators can also create advantages for their top receivers by motioning other players towards them or away from them. The Bengals like to isolate Chase in three-by-one formations and make defenses decide whether to double him with the weakside safety or have the weakside safety help the three-receiver side.

4:01 remaining in the second quarter, first-and-10

Here, the Bengals had Chase and Tyler Boyd lined up to the offensive left initially. After Boyd motioned to the other side, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick had to cover him. The corner over Chase seemingly gave the signal to the safety to his side to help away from him, leaving him in single coverage with Chase.

The offense created more of an advantage with play action. The run fake sucked up both underneath defenders, giving Chase a true one-on-one and the entire middle of the field to work with.

With Vic Fangio’s soft shell defense taking over the league, offenses have more opportunities to throw to receivers underneath and let them create after the catch. In Week 1, star receivers were thrown several tunnel screens or got put in motion and threw passes in the flats before the defense could adjust. The Bills see the second most two-deep safety defenses, behind only the Chiefs, so Stefon Diggs had to work underneath and catch several passes on slants against the Rams.

2:00 remaining in the fourth quarter, first-and-10

Another tool offenses have against off coverage to get the ball in their best receivers’ hands is to have them run a speed out.

Down seven points with two minutes remaining, the Colts had a run/pass option called. Initially, they had tight end motion Mo Alie-Cox inside to give quarterback Matt Ryan a coverage indicator. Strong safety Jalen Pitre lined up with Alie-Cox outside and then followed him in motion, indicating that the defense was in man coverage. Ryan had the option to hand the ball off to Taylor, but he saw that his No. 1 receiver, Michael Pittman Jr., had a one-on-one with off coverage and chose to throw the out. After catching the short pass, Pittman spun away from the corner and scored the game-tying touchdown.

Three teams traded away their elite receivers this offseason. The Packers struggled to create offense against the Vikings without Davante Adams, only scoring seven points in a loss. The Titans struggled to move the ball without AJ Brown and only scored 20 points in a loss to the Giants. The Chiefs’ offense looked more than fine without Hill, but they have the best quarterback and tight end in the league in Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce.

The offseason wide receiver movement fostered debate as to whether it’s worth it to give a top receiver a massive contract with such a strong pipeline of receivers coming from the college ranks. But with the way the league is trending, you can run your offense through some of these top receivers, and that’s worth top dollar.

(Top photo of Justin Jefferson: Nick Wosika / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)



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