New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) in action against...

New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) in action against the Cincinnati Bengals during an NFL football game on Sunday, Sep. 25, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J.  Credit: AP/Brad Penner

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Justin Jefferson will be the next great receiver that the Jets’ improved secondary will try to contain.

Robert Saleh said Jefferson is “pretty damn good,” but he believes his cornerbacks will be up for the challenge.

“I’ll put our guys up against anybody,” Saleh said Wednesday.

Saleh has reason to have confidence in his corners. D.J. Reed and rookie Sauce Gardner are playing Pro Bowl-caliber football. They’ve helped the Jets become one of the best defenses in the league.

The Jets (7-4) are ranked eighth in passing defense, allowing 197.5 yards per game. They have only let two receivers reach 100 yards – Cincinnati’s Tyler Boyd and Cleveland’s Amari Cooper. Over the last five games, opponents are averaging 185.2 passing yards and have thrown just two touchdowns.

Gardner and Reed already have matched up against Miami’s Tyreek Hill, Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs. Only Chase caught a touchdown pass.

Jefferson might be the best receiver of them all. He has 81 catches for 1,232 yards and five touchdowns. He trails Hill, the league leader in receiving yards, by just one yard.

“It’s another challenge for us,” Saleh said.  “I know, just knowing our secondary, they’re ready to take that challenge on.”

Reed and Gardner live for these matchups. They’re two ultra-competitive, prideful players who get upset when they give up a catch. Gardner can’t wait for Sunday.

“These are the type of games that I love,” Gardner said. “I love going against the best. I’m looking forward to it and I know our guys in the secondary are looking forward to it.”

It appears that Reed, who missed practice Wednesday for personal reasons, will match up against Jefferson more unless either team makes a change.

Jefferson usually lines up on Reed’s side of the field more than Gardner’s. The Jets don’t travel with receivers. Gardner said he would love to travel with Jefferson, but he knows what the Jets are doing is working. They’ve allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL (10).

“When you got two dominant corners you really don’t have to stress about anything,” Gardner said. “We’ve been holding our own this whole season. We really don’t have to change anything.”

This is an important December game for both teams, which is something that hasn’t been said much about the Jets lately. They’re trying to improve their playoff chances while Minnesota (9-2) could clinch a spot. A win and a Lions’ loss would give the Vikings the NFC North Division title.

Minnesota has talented playmakers all over on offense. Dalvin Cook is on pace for his fourth-straight season of more than 1,100 yards rushing. The Vikings still have old reliable Adam Thielen and they acquired productive tight end T.J. Hockenson before the trade deadline.

Jefferson has been the breakout star, though. Since entering the league in 2020, no player has more receiving yards (4,248) than Jefferson. His 277 catches rank fifth.

“The big thing is his confidence and belief in himself since he entered the league,” said Jets tight end Tyler Conklin, who spent the previous four seasons with the Vikings. “This league is all about confidence and he’s 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 just the confidence and belief that they are who they say they are.”

Gardner came in with confidence, and it’s only grown with his play. He leads the NFL with 14 passes defensed and has two interceptions. Gardner said he’s physically feeling the best he has all season and believes he’s getting better through experience and film study.

Coming into the season, Gardner said one of his goals was to make the Pro Bowl. He leads all AFC corners in voting. If he helps contain Jefferson, Gardner will only help his chances of making it.

“It actually feels real good,” Gardner said of the Pro Bowl voting. “I’m a naturally humble guy. A lot of you asked me what my individual goals were. That was one of them.

“It’s not too often that rookies make the Pro Bowl. At the same time, I know that the job’s not finished yet. I’m just keeping my head down and keep working.”

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