Sauce Gardner could prove to be Justin Jefferson’s kryptonite

Sauce Gardner could prove to be Justin Jefferson’s kryptonite

The Minnesota Vikings are 9-2, and it would be hard to argue that Justin Jefferson has been anything but a superhero in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The same goes for Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner for the New York Jets, who are 7-4 and in the thick of the playoff race.

While Gardner may not be the MVP of the team, he’s certainly helped improve the defense under coach Robert Saleh’s second season after becoming the fourth overall pick out of Cincinnati back in April.

Jefferson may be in the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year race for Minnesota, and Gardner’s pouring the sauce on in the Big Apple, competing for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but on Sunday, the two are set to square off for an epic duel.

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Justin Jefferson vs. Sauce Gardner

NFL: New England Patriots at Minnesota Vikings
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

When we see the two stars line up opposite of each other on the field, it’s actually Gardner who looks more like a freakish wideout capable of putting up otherworldly numbers, as the Jets cornerback measures in at 6-foot-3. Yet, perhaps that’s what makes what Jefferson accomplishes each week so darn impressive at 6-foot-1.

Size advantages aside, once these two step between the lines, fans are in for a treat.

  • Sauce Gardner stats: 48 tackles, 14 PD, 2 INT

Despite being a rookie, Gardner has quickly established himself as one of the better shutdown corners in football, allowing the NFL’s lowest completion rate among all players to have played at least 80% of a team’s snaps.

The first-year pro is allowing a quarterback rating of just 47.6 when targeted. It doesn’t matter whether he’s asked to play man or zone. The 22-year-old has excelled at both.

Sauce Gardner’s coverage stats Snaps Targets Catches allowed Yards allowed TDs allowed
Man coverage 100 15 4 7 0
Zone coverage 328 38 19 232 1
Stats provided by Pro Football Focus

Gardner’s length, speed, and strength are all likely to pose problems for Jefferson and the Minnesota offense this week. But it’s also not the first time Kirk Cousins and Co. have had to best a feared opponent. Expect coach Kevin O’Connell to have a good game plan in place to put Jefferson in advantageous spots to make plays in space.

Jefferson is already among the game’s best receivers, if not the best (Tyreek Hill is tough to beat). In some ways, it’s Jefferson who should be feeling more pressure. As a third-year pro, he’s supposed to outperform an inexperienced rookie.

For Gardner, a chance to compete against Jefferson only brings the opportunity to raise his profile even higher, putting himself on the radar of several more football observers. For Jefferson, this is just another matchup, yet one he’s expected to win.

With Jefferson averaging 112 yards per game, putting him on pace for 1,904 receiving yards this season, anything under 100 yards will be a win for Gardner. Yet, there’s also the possibility of Jefferson having a massive day against the rookie, which could put him on a better track to set another record.

  • Justin Jefferson stats: 81 receptions, 1,232 receiving yards, 5 TD catches

If Jefferson tops his season average, he may be within reach of breaking the NFL’s single-season receiving yard record, held by Calvin Johnson at 1,964 yards. You can bet that mark is on Jefferson’s radar, yet he’s also had games where he’s recorded just 14, 33, and 48 receiving yards in a game this year.

Who gets the best of who on Sunday? We don’t have a crystal ball, but we’ll sure be tuning in, along with millions of other passionate football fans. Just be sure to pay attention to when No. 1 is lined up opposite No. 18 because it may be one of the best matchups on the gridiron.

Related: Justin Jefferson breaks another NFL record, passing Randy Moss again

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Author: Andrew Buller-Russ

NFL News Sportsnaut