Entering Sunday’s game, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Bisi Johnson had six receptions all season. He caught seven more, a career high, against Carolina.
Coming into the game, Chad Beebe had seven receptions. He, too, caught a career-high seven in Minnesota’s 28-27 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium, including a 10-yard winning touchdown from Kirk Cousins with 46 seconds remaining.
Before the season, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak touted the Vikings’ depth at wide receiver. But for the bulk of the year, depth wasn’t needed because Adam Thielen and rookie Justin Jefferson have been so good.
But on Sunday, Thielen missed his first game of the season while on the COVID-19 reserve list. And Johnson, who had a team-high 74 receiving yards while starting for Thielen, and Beebe, who had 63 yards, stepped up with some key receptions. Beebe’s touchdown, the first of his three-year NFL career, came after he lost a fumble on a muffed punt with 2:10 left in the game.
“I was definitely excited for everyone to have their shine,” said Jefferson, who had seven catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers. “One player goes out, two or three other receivers step up and do tremendous. We just called on those guys this whole week.”
Jefferson said Minnesota’s wide receiver group “stacks up tremendously” in terms of deepest in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranks Jefferson the league’s second-best receiver, and Thielen is No. 3.
After Johnson caught 31 passes last season as a rookie, he began this season as the starter before giving way to Jefferson in the third game. Beebe, despite several injuries, had some good moments before Sunday’s big game.
“I thought Olabisi Johnson played well, and Beebe, both,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
On Sunday, the Vikings (5-6) also were without tight end Irv Smith Jr., a reliable receiver sidelined with a groin injury. So, Johnson and Beebe also helped make up for his absence, and tight end Kyle Rudolph had season-high totals of seven catches and 68 yards.
“You throw Chad and Bisi in there, and there is some real depth,” said Beebe’s father, former NFL receiver Don Beebe. “That’s their job. When a guy like Adam, your star, goes down, you’ve got to step up and fill in.”
Zimmer said he’s “hopeful” Thielen, placed on the COVID-19 list on Nov. 23, will be cleared to play Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium against Jacksonville. If not, the understudies will be called upon again.
Zimmer was pleased with how Beebe bounced back after his muff on an attempted fair catch. The Panthers took over on first-and-goal at the Minnesota 9 with a 24-21 lead, but the Vikings’ defense held them to a field goal, paving the way for Beebe to get another chance.
“It’s what you make of it afterwards,” Zimmer said. “You can’t take that one back. You’ve got to go on and continue to fight.”
Still, Zimmer said Beebe’s winning catch by itself isn’t his golden ticket to more playing time. He averaged 19.3 plays in the previous eight games he played before getting 35 against the Panthers.
“I don’t think because you catch one touchdown pass you earn more playing time,” Zimmer said. “I think it’s an accumulation of things he’s been doing on third down and the things when we’re using him in different packages. He’s only caught one touchdown, right, in his career? … We probably shouldn’t put him in Canton yet.”
Speaking of Canton, Jefferson, 21, said two weeks ago he has been dreaming about making the Pro Football Hall of Fame since he was 10 years old. He’s off to a good start on that goal with 52 catches for 918 yards and six touchdowns so far as a rookie.
And Thielen, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, has 49 receptions for 646 yards and 11 touchdowns, second in the NFL.
Jefferson has played 78.3 percent of the offensive snaps this season, including 91.4 percent in the past three games and 72 of 73 on Sunday. Prior to Sunday’s game, Thielen played 91.8 percent of this year’s snaps.
Once Thielen returns, Johnson and Beebe won’t be on the field for a lot of plays. But they will available when needed, and that’s a good thing.