Jaylon Johnson vs. Justin Jefferson: Dyn-o-mite matchup
A rivalry between the two second-year players is just starting to brew. The Vikings’ Jefferson already is one of the best receivers in the NFL. The Bears’ Johnson is emerging as a top-flight cornerback.
Bears second-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson vs. Packers wide receiver Davante Adams gets more and more interesting every time they meet. But Johnson vs. Vikings burgeoning star Justin Jefferson looks like it could be an equally entertaining marquee matchup for years.
Johnson’s effectiveness against Adams early in the Bears’ 45-30 loss to the Packers last week seemed to confirm his emerging status as a No. 1 cornerback who commands the responsibility of covering the opponent’s top receiver.
According to Next Gen Stats, Adams had two receptions for 19 yards on five targets against Johnson, and eight receptions for 102 yards on eight targets against other Bears defenders. Whether or not the Packers do it all the time or did it throughout the game — as Bears coaches contended — the Packers had to move Adams around to avoid Johnson. And it worked.
Not only that, But Johnson did something you rarely see Bears defenders do against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers — he got the calls. On a first-down pass in the second quarter, Johnson jostled with Adams — with no call — on a downfield pass that fell incomplete.
On another pass play late in the second quarter, flags flew when Rodgers threw incomplete to Adams — except the penalty was on Adams for offensive pass interference. How often does that happen? Not very often — it was the first OPI call against Adams since 2019.
Adams’ versatility, though, was the Bears’ undoing. Working from the slot on the possession after his pass interference penalty, Adams burned nickel cornerback Xavier Crawford for a 38-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left in the first half.
“They didn’t have much success outside the numbers … early or even throughout the game,” Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. “The big explosive play, he was lined up in the slot and ran a double-move in a coverage that we need to be better with our technique and fundamentals.”
As good as Adams is, the challenge against Jefferson is just as big for both Johnson and Desai. The Vikings drafted Jefferson 22nd overall last season — 28 picks before the Bears took Johnson — and the payoff was immediate.
Jefferson was a second-team All-Pro selection as a rookie, with 88 receptions for 1,400 yards (15.9 avg.) and seven touchdowns. He had two 100-yard games against the Bears: eight receptions for 135 yards in a 19-13 Vikings victory at Soldier Field; and — with Johnson out with a shoulder injury — eight receptions for 104 yards in a 33-27 Bears victory at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Jefferson has been even better this season — with 85 receptions for 1,288 yards (15.2 avg.) and eight touchdowns in 13 games.
“He’s another dynamic receiver,” Desai said. “He’s up there in the top 1-2-3-4 in the league. He’s strong with his hands and runs really good routes. And he can create separation at the top of his routes with his stems [the burst off the line before he makes his cut]. They do a good job of moving him around a little bit.”
That’s the that could challenge the Bears’ defense, because of the disparity between Johnson and the rest of the Bears’ secondary that was exposed against the Packers. The Bears are shaky at the other cornerback spot, with Kindle Vildor and Artie Burns. And even shakier at slot cornerback, with Marqui Christian, Duke Shelley and Xavier Crawford — a big drop from Bryce Callahan (2018) and Buster Skrine (2019-20).
“Offenses in this league are moving all their guys around to create favorable matchups,” Desai said. “When you have guys with the skill set of Davante Adams or Justin Jefferson that can do multiple things, they’re going to continue to do that.
“We’ve seen it with those two guys. I would expect the Vikings to continue to do it. They’ve done it all year, just like the Packers do.”