MINNEAPOLIS — In a year that has felt so much like a simulation of past Minnesota Vikings seasons, one thing has been notably different: The Vikings have a third wide receiver who is capable of making game-changing plays.
On Thursday night, the Vikings were in danger of being on the wrong end of one of the NFL’s greatest meltdowns when, remarkably, somebody not named Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen or Dalvin Cook rose to the occasion.
The Vikings allowed a 29-0 lead to transform into a 29-20 ballgame between the 2:20 mark of the third quarter and 12:11 mark of the fourth, giving up touchdown drives of 75, 42 and 69 yards in the time you could spell Roethlisberger. KJ Osborn then delivered the counterpunch that the Vikings, whose defense has defined whatever the antonym of “clutch” is, desperately needed. The 2020 fifth-rounder flew underneath a Kirk Cousins bomb, let the ball settle in his hands and wandered into the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown to put the Vikings up by 16 points.
They eventually held on to win by one score.
“That kind of took us to the point where, ‘Yeah, we’re still here, We still can score,’” running back Dalvin Cook said. “For us to go get that quick-strike and kind of show them we settled down, ‘We got y’all, just like we have been in the first half,’ so just regrouping and doing our thing.”
Creating big plays and the most important times has become Osborn’s calling card.
He converted a third-and-24 against Cincinnati that led to a touchdown drive. He caught back-to-back passes that put the Vikings in field goal position on a potential game-winning drive versus the Arizona Cardinals He made the walk-off grab in Carolina. In Detroit, Osborn’s go-ahead touchdown late in the game went forgotten because of a defensive meltdown on the Lions’ final drive.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that he’s wearing No. 17, a number that belonged to “Mr. Third Down” Jarius Wright in the past. The fact that fans still reference Wright, who last played for the Vikings in 2017, shows you the rarity of anything coming from players outside of the stars in recent years.
In the seasons since Wright made a gigantic fourth-quarter catch in the Minneapolis Miracle game, the Vikings have tried everything at the No. 3 receiver spot, from hoping and dreaming that first-rounder Laquon Treadwell would work out to signing Kendall Wright, Aldrick Robinson, Tajae Sharpe and most recently Dede Westbrook. For a minute there it seemed maybe Bisi Johnson could be that guy but that never materialized.
Not only did WR3 yield below mediocre results in the past, the fear of a Thielen/Diggs or Thielen/Jefferson injury always lingered. When Thielen went out in 2019, Johnson caught 17 passes at just 8.3 yards per reception. Diggs was forced to carry the entire deep passing load.
But in the last two weeks with Thielen out of the lineup, Osborn has gained 130 yards on seven receptions and adapted quickly to the No. 2 role.
“With Adam out, we were joking that Justin might get triple coverage,” Osborn said. “They’re going to make [Kirk] throw it to somebody else, so it just helps me step up. That’s what you want in those moments and the NFL.”
While his catch against the Steelers may be remembered as the play that kept the Vikings’ playoff hopes alive, the previous week may have said more about him as a player. Thielen went down on the opening drive, forcing Osborn to flip a switch and take over the No. 2 role.
“On the sideline, I was asking, ‘Who’s playing what? Who should I be looking at here for this motion and that?’” quarterback Kirk Cousins said after the game in Detroit. “There were some gymnastics there, and I was impressed with the way [the receivers] handled it. You so appreciate having depth. You so appreciate having a K.J. Osborn when Adam goes down. You always know it’s a play away, but when it happens and you know you have somebody who can answer the call, it’s a great sense of comfort at my position.”
Cousins has certainly appreciated Osborn this year. When throwing in his direction, the Vikings’ QB is completing 68% of his passes, averaging 13.0 yards per completion and has a 104.4 rating.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Osborn has been perfect. Head coach Mike Zimmer said that his second-year receiver needed to make a better play on Cousins’s second interception against the Steelers.
“I know I can just run a better route,” Osborn admitted. “I can try to knock the ball down or something so it’s not intercepted.”
Osborn might not yet be as polished as Thielen and will never have the physical gifts of Jefferson, but his improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 gives the Vikings something to think about for the future.
A more seasoned Osborn combined with Jefferson, Thielen and returning Irv Smith Jr. sets up for the Vikings to have one of the best sets of offensive playmakers in the NFL in 2022. Beyond that he could work into the No. 2 role long term. That’s quite a jump from starting OTAs behind Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson.
It’s unclear how much longer the Vikings will need Osborn to play the No. 2 role. High ankle sprains are no fun for receivers but the Vikings get a long break between Thursday Night football and Monday Night Football when they face off with the Chicago Bears. In either role, they will need Osborn to continue to be open and make plays in the biggest moments.
They will need the thing they’ve been missing in past years to be the thing that helps get them back into the postseason.