Plenty of attention will be paid to Sunday’s Odell Beckham Jr. versus Josh Norman matchup, with the Giants receiver and Washington cornerback facing one another for the first time since last December’s throwdown at MetLife Stadium.
But while Beckham-Norman II inevitably will dominate the news cycle before the rematch of the gifted receiver and Pro Bowl cornerback who took up residence inside Beckham’s head during last year’s Panthers-Giants game, a far more meaningful story line is developing around the Giants’ receiving game. And it has nothing to do with an impending war of words — or more — between the temperamental receiver and the yappy cornerback.
Only two games into the season, the Giants are developing one of the NFL’s most effective receiving groups, with Beckham joined by a rejuvenated Victor Cruz and promising rookie Sterling Shepard. Beckham leads the team with 12 catches for 159 yards. Shepard has 11 receptions for 160 yards and a touchdown. Cruz (eight catches, 125 yards) scored the winning TD against the Cowboys and set up the winning field goal against the Saints.
That the Giants have two close wins over teams that broke their hearts with comebacks last year is promising enough. That they would win both without Beckham getting into the end zone is an added benefit, and a clear measure of how balanced the passing game has been.
A strong defense has been a major factor, and you can’t underestimate the impact of Jerry Reese’s offseason spending spree to beef up the league’s worst defense in 2015. But Cruz’s return and the addition of Shepard to complement Beckham have been equally significant. If the trend continues, no amount of jawing from Norman, whose new team is 0-2, should be able to distract the Giants’ passing game.
Having three capable receivers makes a coordinator’s job that much easier, and coach Ben McAdoo, who remains the Giants’ play-caller, has been a direct beneficiary.
“What it does is it creates great competition in the room,” McAdoo said Monday. “It lets those guys know that every time they get an opportunity, they better cash in on it. The ball could go to any of the three spots. It makes you very versatile.”
It makes you close to unstoppable if the matchups line up correctly. Manning has completed 73.9 percent of his passes and has a 106.9 rating. He entered the season with a career percentage of 59.3 and a rating of 83.5. And though it’s unlikely that he can keep his completion percentage that high — the record is 71.2 by Drew Brees in 2011 — it’s hard to underestimate the importance of having three capable receivers.
McAdoo can dial up any number of routes that will get at least one open, regardless of what the defense does. Opponents routinely will provide double-coverage on one or two receivers for each play, but you can’t double three receivers. So all Manning has to do is select the right receiver in the right coverage and he’s likely to complete most of his passes.
That’s why having a reliable No. 3 receiver in Shepard, who Beckham predicts can have a rookie of the year season, is so crucial. It’s why Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to dominate the Bills last week, because No. 3 Quincy Enunwa was consistently open to make big-chunk gains. Even the No. 4 receiver, rookie Jalin Marshall, made big catches.
Norman will have his work cut out no matter whom he covers. This season he has not traveled with the opponent’s No. 1 receiver — Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant — instead remaining on the left side, with Bashaud Breeland on the right side. That means all three Giants receivers likely will line up against Norman at times. So if Beckham can restrain himself from being drawn into the kind of selfish battle he engaged in last year, when he drew a one-game suspension for head-butting Norman, the Giants should be able to open up the passing game.
If I’m McAdoo, I have Cruz go up against Norman as much as possible. The 29-year-old isn’t known for getting into scuffles with cornerbacks, choosing to walk away from trash-talking. And with Cruz being so physical, compared to Beckham’s more athletic style, Cruz can impose his will on Norman without being drawn into retaliation. Shepard has a similar build to Cruz, so he also can use his strength to fend off Norman and get open.
Beckham essentially was a one-man receiving corps last year, with the Giants severely undermanned by injuries and lack of talent. But with Cruz back and Shepard quickly emerging as a big-play target, there has been an important shift.
It’s a great situation for a quarterback and a play-caller, and Manning and McAdoo are reaping the benefits. Another solid performance, and the Giants will be three games up on the defending division champions after only three weeks.
It’s enough to reduce a chatterbox cornerback to silence.