Mike Shula and Steve Sarkisian have the easiest hard job in the NFL when it comes to their top receiver. Or is it the hardest easy gig?
Either way, the offensive coordinators, whose 1-5 Giants and 2-4 Falcons square off on Monday night in Atlanta, have at their disposal the top two players in NFL history in yards receiving per game (minimum 50 games). Odell Beckham Jr.’s 93.0-yard average is second only to Julio Jones’ 96.7. Despite their historic production, they have just one touchdown — Beckham in Week 5 at Carolina — between them through six games this season. That’s what happens when defenses design game plans around them. It’s nothing new, but that’s where having an Odell or Julio becomes a double-edged sword.
“Yeah, it is a challenge,” said Shula, the Giants coordinator. “It’s a good challenge, and that’s what is great about this sport is that it’s a great team sport. There’s 10 other guys on the field other than Odell or Julio. I think the number one thing for us to do, the challenge is to get the ball in the end zone more, whether or not it’s in the red zone or wherever. Whether or not that’s getting the ball to Odell or by moving him around.
“I think everyone knows we move him around a little bit just like Atlanta does with Julio, or if not, then if there’s coverage that’s being taken to him and he’s double covered or they’re cheating the safety outside so to speak, then other guys have a chance to have one-on-one or be open in their zone. That’s the neat thing about football is diagnosing that, and obviously for Eli [Manning], it’s just about making good decisions and getting to the right guy with the ball on time and accurately.”
Shula, Manning and head coach/play-caller Pat Shurmur have to walk the fine line between forcing the ball to No. 13 and just taking what the defense gives them. So far, the Giants have struggled with that balance as they enter Week 7 ranked 24th in yards (348.3), 17th in passing 260.8 and 27th in scoring (19.5).
“It’s different what happens to me than other people,” Beckham said, “but when you got a guy like Julio, not to say no one can cover him one-on-one, it’s a tough challenge. It’s a tough challenge. He’s one of the best, if not the best. He’s the most freakish I’ve seen, so our defense has got a tough challenge ahead going against him, the young buck [Calvin] Ridley, [Mohamed] Sanu. We got a challenge ahead. This is … still the Atlanta Falcons. This a good team we’re going against at home in the dome Monday night. They’re going to be fired up, they need a win. They’re trying to get their season rolling, we’re trying to get ours started, so it’s going to be a battle.”
The return of Rhett Ellison and Evan Engram, their thunder-and-lighting tight ends, could help the offense get on track against a Falcons defense ranked in the bottom three in yards and points. Ellison missed his first game as a Giant last week with a foot injury, and Engram has not played since suffering an ankle injury in Week 3 at Houston, the Giants’ only win of the season to date.
“It is a fine line because [Beckham is] one of your top players and you want to get your top players the ball, but you also don’t want your quarterback forcing it to him where it results in a tipped ball or an interception or whatever,” Shula said. “That’s why … Evan’s going to be helpful, [Sterling Shepard] we talked about, and obviously Saquon [Barkley]. If teams all the sudden want to start playing two deep, which we haven’t seen a whole lot of but they do mix it in, then they’ve got Saquon to worry about with two safeties back there and less run support.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn admitted that it is “surprising” Jones and Beckham have only one touchdown among their 89 catches combined. What’s not surprising is defenses making it a point not to let Beckham or Jones beat them.
“I would say that’s definitely part of it,” Quinn said, “especially when you go into a game, you’ve got to make sure, especially down in the red zone, both of them have such a big catching radius and aggressively go after it that you say, hey, make sure these two guys get special attention. It is surprising, I’d agree with you that between them they don’t have more; however, I think that is a function of it, or call it like a by-product of special attention going their way, which creates opportunities for other men in those windows. I can’t speak for New York, but I can certainly for our side, that’s where Calvin Ridley, Austin Hooper, and some of the guys have maybe gotten some more favorable looks.”
Quinn added: “For instance, when the Giants offense is playing a team, they may look if we played that team, how did they guard Julio to say, hey, you might get this kind of style. We certainly do the same if we’re playing an opponent and they may have played the Giants, how did they try to work towards Odell? There’s a little gamesmanship on that side to go through it of how do people want to play unique players, and in our league today, I would say there’s a handful of receivers that garner that kind of special attention and it just so happens that two of them are matched up this weekend. They’re different players, but both really effective in their own right.”
They also have decorated quarterbacks getting them the ball. On one side is a two-time Super Bowl MVP in Manning, and on the other is a former league MVP in Matt Ryan.
“I tell [Eli] every time we get in the huddle, I say, ‘Take me home, 10,’ which to me carries weight because he’s been there,” Beckham said. “He knows how to win. He knows what he’s doing. He’s the most prepared of anybody I’ve ever seen and that’s exactly what I say – ‘Take me home’ — so we’re going to start picking it up, we got to. We have no other choice. I don’t think anybody in here has that lay down mentality. I don’t think anybody has quit in them. We’ve just been beaten. Some games we’ve out executed. We just need to win, that’s really it.”
*Wide receiver/kick returner Jawill Davis (concussion) did not practice on Friday and has been added to the injury report. Said Shurmur, “Jawill had a persistent headache, so the medical staff determined he should be placed in the concussion protocol.”
Left tackle Nate Solder and wide receiver Russell Shepard were limited with neck injuries. Engram, Ellison, and outside linebacker Olivier Vernon (ribs) were full-go.
*The Giants signed wide receiver Corey Coleman, the 15th overall selection by the Browns in the 2016 NFL Draft, to their practice squad this week. On Aug. 5, Coleman was traded to the Buffalo Bills, who released him on Sept. 1. Ten days later, he signed with the New England Patriots, who waived him on Sept. 17. Shurmur spoke today about what he brings to the table.
“We brought him here because we feel like he’s got a future,” Shurmur said today. “He’s a talented young man, he’s very talented. He’s fast, he’s a good receiver, and he’s been a couple places already. We’re kicking the tires on him with the idea that he’s got a future.”
*This will be the Giants’ first trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened last year and will be home to this season’s Super Bowl. However, it will not be Shurmur’s first time in the stadium. As offensive coordinator in 2017, the Vikings defeated the Falcons, 14-9, for their eighth consecutive victory. He was asked if there is any challenge to playing in a stadium where very few people have been.
“Not really. I think that’s what warmups are for,” he said. “They get out and they move around, they get a feel for their surroundings. I played down there. It’s like any away stadium, the real challenge for any visiting team is the crowd noise and we all have ways of dealing with that. I think once you get beyond that, the fields are all marked the same and you go play.”