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Sauce Gardner hyped to go head-to-head with Vikings’ Justin Jefferson

Sauce Gardner’s reaction to arguably the best catch in NFL history was to think about how it might help the Jets.

As jaws were hitting the ground in response to Justin Jefferson’s one-handed grab with his body contorted at a 45-degree angle to convert a late-game fourth-and-23 for the Vikings against the Bills three weeks ago, Gardner recognized a chance for the Jets to gain ground in the AFC East standings.

“They were playing Buffalo, so I wanted him to make that catch,” Gardner said of the play that kept the Vikings alive for a 33-30 victory. “It was a pretty good catch.”

That’s as understated as calling Gardner a “pretty good rookie.” Or as saying that any 1-on-1 matchup between Gardner and Jefferson during the Jets-Vikings game Sunday should be “pretty entertaining.”

The smooth route-running Jefferson (81 catches for 1,232 yards and five touchdowns) leads all NFL players in fan votes for the Pro Bowl. Gardner (two interceptions) leads all AFC cornerbacks.

Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) at practice in Florham Park, NJ. Photo by
Bill Kostroun

“It feels real good,” Gardner said. “That’s one of the things I was saying before the season started when you asked what my individual goals were. It’s not too often that rookies make the Pro Bowl, but the job’s not finished yet. I’m keeping my head down and keeping going.”

It’s no surprise Jefferson is being recognized for his talent, since he just passed Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr. for most receiving yards over a player’s first three seasons (with six games to go) and is on his way to his third Pro Bowl selection. Gardner’s quick entry into the conversation with Xavien Howard, Marlon Humphrey and Patrick Surtain as one of the best corners in the league speaks to his rare ability.

“This league is all about confidence,” said Jets tight end Tyler Conklin, who was Jefferson’s teammate in 2020 and 2021. “[Justin] has had that confidence since he got in the league. I think that’s a big reason Sauce is as good as he is. Obviously, they have the talent, but they have the belief that they are who they say they are.”

There is no indication Gardner is about to hit a rookie wall as the season extends beyond what he was accustomed to in college at Cincinnati. The No. 4 overall pick hasn’t allowed a touchdown catch since Week 2 and has allowed two catches or fewer and 42 yards or fewer in four straight games.

“I was just talking to my coach: It feels like this week is the best I’ve felt all season,” Gardner said. “I feel like I’ll just progressively get better and better as the season goes.”

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) runs
AP Photo

Gardner’s NFL debut has caught the attention of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.

“He’s a great player and he’s had a great year,” Cousins said. “I’m always amazed by young players and how well they can play early in the league because I know looking back at my career as a young player how difficult it was to play well. I have a great respect for guys that do that.”

Coaching strategies will play a big part in how much Jefferson and Gardner go head-to-head. The Jets run a zone-heavy scheme and Gardner predominantly stays on the left side of the defense. Jefferson lines up on both sides as well as in the slot.

Will the Jets break their mold and have Gardner shadow Jefferson? Will the Vikings steer clear of Gardner? The Jets’ other corner, D.J. Reed, is playing at an elite level on the right side, too.

“These are the types of games I love. I love going against the best,” Gardner said. “When you’ve got two dominant cornerbacks, you don’t really have to stress about anything. We’ve been holding our own this whole season, so we don’t really have to change anything.”

The Jets already held the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase to a season-low 29 yards, the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill to 47 and the Bills’ Stefon Diggs to a low-impact 95. Jefferson might be better than all three.

“He’s got elite speed, and then on top of it he’s got tremendous body control and strength,” Jets head coach Robert Saleh said. “His lower half is very awkward in the sense that it’s like a basketball player who can cross-over dribble. He can work outside his frame and create separation, so he’s the total receiver.”

Against the total cornerback(s).

“I’ll put our guys up against anybody,” Saleh said. “It’s going to be a great challenge, but I think it’s a challenge that our guys are excited for.”