The New York Giants haven’t had many bright spots on offense this year. Odell Beckham Jr. began the season with an ankle injury and another prematurely ended it. In the wake of that injury the Giants rediscovered their long-dormant running game, with Orleans Darkwa averaging more than five yards per carry behind an offensive line believed incapable of opening any running lanes. However, for a variety of reasons (shoddy defensive play, an inability to sustain drives, and score enough points, among others) the Giants have had to abandon that running game by the end of games.
However, there have been a pair of bright spots on offense for the Giants. The first is rookie tight end Evan Engram, who is turning the notion that rookie tight ends can’t be productive on its head. The second is second-year receiver Sterling Shepard. Shepard was productive in his first year, but looked to take the next step in his second season.
He too was caught up in the rash of injuries that claimed Beckham, Brandon Marshall, and Dwayne Harris. However, Shepard put the league on notice in his second game back from injury. As the Giants’ primary receiving option he caught 11 passes on 13 targets for 142 yards, playing from both the slot and out wide.
While the box score numbers are very good, a look at the more advanced analytics show just how impressive he was against the San Francisco 49ers.
Pro Football Focus ranked him as the top wide receiver in the league in Week 10.
These WRs balled out in Week 10 pic.twitter.com/JpySrv1xrx— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 14, 2017
Meanwhile, NFL.com’s NextGen stats show how he threatened the San Francisco defense across the field, both shallow and deep.
But enough of the charts and numbers, let’s take a look at his play on the field.
For our first play, and Shepard’s second reception of the game, we see him in a position at which the Giants have rarely played him: Outisde.
Lined up in their “12” personnel package, with Eli Manning under center, the Giants have Shepard lined up as the “X” receiver at the top of the screen. With the Giants in a heavier personnel package, Eli Manning under center, and having run the ball several times already, the 49ers have to respect the possibility of a run play, opening the door for a play-action pass.
That is exactly what the Giants do, playing to one of Eli Manning’s strengths as a passer. The Giants fake an outside zone to the offensive left, while Manning rolls out to the right on a naked bootleg. He has targets at two levels, the tight end underneath and Shepard deeper.
On the outside, the cornerback is expecting a deeper route and bails a bit just before the snap, opening his hips to take inside leverage. It is likely a guess based on how much of the Giants’ passing game is based on in-breaking routes (slants, mostly). However, Shepard runs a comeback route, breaking back toward the sideline after stemming his route right into the corner’s chest plate. The combination of running the stem into the corner and breaking opposite of what the corner is expecting has him on the ground while Shepard is wide open for the catch.
The use of his stem to help create separation as much as a short break is a trait we saw from him in college, and this is a good reminder of just how good a route runner Shepard was coming out of college.
Next we come to more normal fair for Shepard: A quick slant to beat a blitz.
This play the Giants are in their “11” package, shotgun set, with Shepard in the slot. The 49ers are showing a six-man pressure package with man coverage under a Cover 1 shell. That is exactly what they bring — though one of the linebackers on the line of scrimmage is actually in coverage on the tight end (it could have been a “Green Dog” blitz).
Manning correctly reads the defense and exploits the void in the middle of the field to get the ball out quickly before the pressure is able to get to him. For his part, Shepard runs his route well, Sharply cutting at the 20-yard line to make sure he can clear the defender covering the running back while getting to the spot before the DB in off coverage is able to get to him.
This isn’t a flashy or complicated play, but it is the kind of quick timing passes that can keep an offense on schedule without putting the quarterback at risk of getting hit.
If you watch much college football, this play should be pretty familiar to you. That’s because the simple bubble screen is a staple of college spread offenses, and that’s probably putting it mildly.
Described as an extension of the running game, this play is designed to quickly get the ball to an athletic receiver on the edge with a blocker ahead of him. It isn’t supposed to gash a defense, but it is a quick play that keeps the offense moving and forces a defense to play horizontally as well as vertically.
It’s also a smart play with the 49ers entire front seven crowding the line of scrimmage under a very soft coverage shell. The Giants do a good job of getting the timing right, avoiding a penalty for having a blocker downfield while also giving Shepard plenty of room to run. But the special part of the play happens after he has the ball in his hands. Shepard isn’t known for his ability to make defenders miss and rack up yards after the catch, but that is exactly what he does here. His quick feet and explosive lower body are evident in his route running, and he shows them again here with a nifty start-stop move to make the safety whiff attempting an open-field tackle. Though the rest of the secondary rallies to the ball, it is enough to pick up an additional 10 or 11 yards, turning a quick hitter into a big play.
We simply couldn’t NOT talk about this play. Apart from Evan Engram’s touchdown catch and Olivier Vernon’s interception, this was probably the best play of the game for the Giants.
The Giants are in their “11” personnel package, in the shotgun set, and Shepard is in his customary slot position. The Giants are running a definite spread look with the tight end detatched from the offensive line, and leaving just the five offensive linemen home to protect Manning. With just two yards needed to pick up the first down, they won’t need to pass protect for long. However, rather than just picking up the first down, the Giants opt to push the ball downfield.
Shepard runs a wheel route out of the slot, working with Tavarres King in a “rub” concept (which King is careful to explicitly sell as definitely not an illegal pick play). But since the slot corner wastes no time in getting his hands on Shepard, the rub route is ineffective.
I’d like to acknowledge that the corner is careful to get his hands off of Shepard after five yards to avoid a defensive penalty, but still does a good job of keeping in the receivers hip pocket. Shepard, however, is able to accelerate at the last moment and create enough separation to lay out for the ball.
For his part, Manning made a nice throw, putting the ball where only his receiver could get it, exactly when Shepard got there. Had the slot corner not disrupted his route quite as much, Shepard might have been able to run under the ball and picked up extra yardage, perhaps even make the safety miss as in the previous play. But as it was, this was a spectacular, Beckham-esque, play.
Let’s take another, slower, look at it from the broadcast angle:
Honestly, Shepard’s play in the absence of Odell Beckham Jr. shouldn’t really be surprising. As a rookie he was the most prolific scoring slot receiver in the NFL and basically supplanted Reuben Randle’s production from the year before. As a receiver for Oklahoma, Shepard was a monster who was neigh uncoverable.
At the time of the 2016 draft, Matt Harmon, creator of the Reception Perception, said of Shepard:
“Sterling Shepard simply broke the system with an 82.8 percent success rate against man coverage, and 91.1 percent against press. Question his size, or a future as “just” a slot receiver, but that is a rare ability to get open. Over a full Reception Perception sample, Shepard posted SRVC numbers akin to that of some of the best wide receivers in the NFL. His advanced and nuanced route-running combined with tangible athletic gifts should make him a lock for a top-three ranking at his position.”
Shepard wasn’t without his weaknesses at the college level. He struggled with producing yards after the catch, which we have seen in the NFL, where he has a tendency to go down with the first hit. In college he wasn’t great at
“While his SRVC scores paint him as an elite level prospect, Sterling Shepard comes up a bit short in his contested catch marks,” Harmon said. “He finished just under the average with a 55.6 conversion rate. As a disclaimer, he did win some truly impressive balls in tight coverage, and has that ability in his arsenal, but his smaller frame and shorter arms may keep him from being a true star in this area.”
But on that note, Shepard has definitely improved as a professional. Pro Football Focus ranks the Giants’ second-year receiver as one of the best in the NFL in contested catch situations.
WR Sterling Shepard showed yesterday how he's been a beast on contested targets in 2017— PFF NY Giants (@PFF_NYGiants) November 13, 2017
No. 3 completion % in the NFL pic.twitter.com/4kSBroqUal
That 66.67 percent success rate in contested situations is up a full 11% from his college rate. That is significant, and bodes well according to Harmon.
“Shepard has the explosive attributes and pristine route running to be a small receiver that is his team’s No. 1 threat,” Harmon said back in 2016. “But, he’ll need to improve on winning contested catches consistently if he truly wants to follow in the Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown archetype.”
Was Shepard’s game in San Francisco a case of a good receiver taking advantage of a weak secondary, or was it the first glimpse of something greater?
We’ll just have to wait and see, but at the very least, it is nice to have a bright spot in a thoroughly depressing season.