September 15, 2023
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Justin Jefferson had a touchdown in his grasp.
He just couldn’t hold on to the ball.
Jefferson hauled in a 30-yard reception that took Minnesota to the Philadelphia 1-yard line, tried to stretch into the end zone and lost the ball as he was tackled. The ball rolled into the end zone and out of bounds, and a seemingly sure score for the Vikings — a first-and-goal, at the very least — turned instead into a touchback.
Go-ahead TD, wiped out.
“Justin’s just trying to make a play in that moment,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said.
Jefferson, who otherwise had a fantastic game with 11 catches for 159 yards, had company on the fumble-happy Vikings. The Vikings lost four fumbles, a critical factor in a 34-28 loss to the Eagles on Thursday night.
“I’m putting a lot on myself, fumbling in the end zone like that when we need points,” Jefferson said. “Being the captain of the team, I have to know the situation, take care of the ball. I told my teammates, that’s on me and it won’t happen again.”
The Vikings fell to 0-2, with both losses by one score, a year after they went 11-0 in one-score games in a 13-4 season.
Kirk Cousins, who threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns, lofted a pass to Jefferson with the Vikings down 10-7 late in the first half. Jefferson beat a double-team and caught the ball around the 5-yard line. He took a few big strides down the sideline and extended his arm toward the pylon just as safety Terrell Edmunds tripped him up. The ball went flying over pylon and out of bounds, giving the Eagles the ball at the 20.
“He’s trying to do whatever he can to win,” O’Connell said. “That was incredibly unfortunate at the time.”
Even with the fumble, Jefferson topped 5,000 receiving yards in 52 career games, tying Hall of Famer Lance Alworth for the fewest games needed to hit that mark in NFL history. Jefferson had his fifth game with at least 10 catches and 150 yards, the most by an NFL player before turning 25. He turned 24 in June.
Cousins said he tried to examine why each turnover happened.
“If Justin is going out of bounds at the 5-yard line, he’s not reaching,” Cousins said. “He’s reaching because he thinks he has a chance there on the half-yard line.”
Protecting the ball has turned into an early headache for Minnesota.
Cousins lost two fumbles and the Vikings had three first-half turnovers in a season-opening home loss to Tampa Bay.
Against the Eagles, the problem persisted.
“Clearly, I’ve got to coach it better,” O’Connell said. “Ball security is a major focus in our football philosophy.”
Punt returner Brandon Powell coughed up the ball in the first quarter and the Eagles recovered. The Vikings’ first play after they picked off Jalen Hurts for the only time in the game resulted in a turnover. Running back Alexander Mattison fumbled and Justin Evans scooped the ball.
The Vikings have lost the turnover battle by a combined 7-1 in the first two games.
“You’re not going to win too many games like that in this league,” Jefferson said. “I feel like we’ve got to do better on the turnover margin. We’ve just got to hold on to the ball, take care of the ball and I feel like the game would be totally different.”
Cousins was strip-sacked deep in Minnesota’s territory by Josh Sweat on the opening drive of the second half. Fletcher Cox recovered the ball and took it to the Vikings 7-yard line. Two plays later, Hurts scored on a 1-yard run that pushed Philadelphia’s lead to 20-7.
“I didn’t see him,” Cousins said. “I guess it’s that old blindside term.”