There’s a fading light in the North Star State.
The Minnesota Vikings, entering U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday with a hold of the final spot in the NFC playoffs and hosting a true playoff contender in the Los Angeles Rams, came out quiet in a game that should have had the makings of a playoff-type atmosphere.
But sophomore star receiver Justin Jefferson noticed a lack of energy in the locker room before the game — one which the fans reciprocated in a demoralizing 30-23 loss to the Rams.
“I was trying to pick up the guys and everything, but we still came out slow,” Jefferson said in a postgame press conference. “We didn’t come out with the energy that we needed to, especially (against) this type of team.”
Once a game away from hosting the Super Bowl in their own stadium, the Vikings appear on course to miss the postseason for a second straight season — a first in head coach Mike Zimmer’s eight-year tenure.
It’s a story all-too-familiar in Minnesota — settling for just good enough. However, Jefferson got his first glimpse of a larger issue plaguing the Vikings in recent years.
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Lack of Aggression
In a postgame press conference, Jefferson called out the offensive play calling, pleading that they play more aggressively in the red zone.
“I think we should be more aggressive when we get down there,” he said. “As soon as we get down there. But I’m not the one calling the plays. I’m just here to do my job and do what’s told of me. But we can’t get down in the red zone that many times and come out with three points.”
The Vikings were 2-of-5 in the red zone on Sunday. Kirk Cousins attempted eight passes inside the 20, targeting Jefferson just once. Minnesota scored nine points on those trips in the red zone — a Greg Joseph field goal and a 2-yard touchdown run by Alexander Mattison after an opportune interception by linebacker Anthony Barr.
Barr agreed there was a lack of energy in the building but felt it came from the fans and not the team. Regardless of the source, a stadium that’s reputation has been one of the most difficult to play in the NFL felt oddly welcoming to the Rams.
Jefferson remains adamant on keeping his spirits high despite the Vikings slipping to only a 10% chance of making the postseason, per FiveThirtyEight.
“I can only control what I can,” Jefferson said. “I definitely will keep the energy up, keep talking my guys up, trying to pick them up. But at the end of the day, I can’t go out there and play for them. … It’s not totally over yet. We’ve got some juice left, but you’ve just got to go and win these two games. Be aggressive, be emotionally into it and just be mentally prepared to go in there and fight our butt off.”
However, Jefferson’s revelation on Sunday may prove to be a harbinger the Vikings will have to correct if they hope to stop the past from repeating itself once again.
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Priority No. 1 in Minnesota: Making Jefferson Happy
Jefferson, catching eight passes for 116 yards, reset the NFL record for most receiving yards (2,851) in a player’s first two seasons on Sunday.
The 22-year-old has the makings of a superstar-caliber player that the Vikings should do everything to keep him around. After seeing Jefferson’s comments, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio pointed to the trend of star receivers leaving the Vikings in Stefon Diggs, Percy Harvin and Randy Moss (twice).
“During the 16 years that the Wilfs have owned the Vikings, the team was unable to keep three great receivers happy. They now have to worry about a fourth eventually deciding to make a play to continue his career in a new city,” Florio wrote.”
Jefferson’s assessment of the struggles on offense was “pragmatic, but also ominous,” Florio added with the mounting pressure on the franchise to make changes that could leave Jefferson’s future with the Vikings in limbo.
“Unless these next two games turn out well for the Vikings, a coaching change quite possibly will be next up for the Vikings. Then, the new regime will have a year or two to persuade Jefferson to stick around for the long haul,” Florio wrote.