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Spotlight: Odell Beckham vs. Josh Norman (2015)

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How did the on-field matchup between the two rivals play out the first time?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s finally here.

After most of a year of talk and build-p, the New York Beckhams are set to take on the Washington Normans!

Oh, well, I guess the rest of the New York Giants will be playing the Washington Redskins too. But let’s face it, most of sports media doesn’t care about that -- though the prospects of an NFC East team facing an 0-3 hole and potential quarterback controversy is a nice sidebar.

But no, it will be the long-awaited rematch between Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and new Washington cornerback Josh Norman that has dominated the week leading up to Sunday’s game. And after last year’s game against the Carolina Panthers that devolved into a brawl between Norman and Beckham, the majority of the coverage will be about the "extra-curriculars" between the two players and the ensuing war of words that grew increasingly one-sided over the offseason.

This isn’t about that, however.

No, we want to take a look at the actual football. How did Norman play Beckham last season and was he able to hold the Giants’ receiver in check?

Beckham had a relatively quiet six-reception, 76 yard, one-touchdown game. But did the box score tell the whole story?

Play 1

Situation: First Quarter, 13:43 - This was the Giants’ fourth offensive play. They had just been handed a fresh set of downs when Beckham drew a pass interference penalty on Luke Kuechly. The Giants’ decided to take advantage of that and take a shot downfield and shock the Panthers’ defense.

The Giants are in their standard one back, one tight end (11 personnel) set. To match, the Panthers are in their nickel set, with what appears to be man coverage under a Cover 2 shell.

The play starts with Dwayne Harris going in motion from one side of the formation to the other, giving Manning a clue to the coverage. The Giants’ route design is meant to draw zone coverage down while Beckham runs the corner-post route.

Norman appears to be in man coverage, positioning himself to create inside leverage and force Beckham's release to the inside where he (Norman) has safety help.

After the snap, Harris has found a gaping hole in the Panthers’ zone coverage over the middle and would have an easy first down, but Eli wants to take a shot and stun the Panthers’ defense. He did use his eyes to to force the safety that was bracketing Beckham to pull inside to cover Harris.

With coverage loosened up, Beckham is free to streak down the field. His subtle cut and speed creating a couple steps of separation from Norman. This could have been a huge play for the Giants, but Beckham ultimately dropped the ball.

Play 2

Situation: Third Quarter, 13:06 - The Giants are down 21-7, with the ball on their 42-yard line on a second-and-8. While it’s still early in the second half, the Giants need to start generating some kind of offensive momentum if they want to claw their way back into the game.

As in the last play, the Giants are in their 11 personnel set with Manning under center, and they want to attack deep with post routes on both sides. The slot receiver runs a slant route to the middle of the field to give Manning a check-down option and to pull the safety coverage away from the deep routes. Once again, the Panthers appear to be in a Cover-2 shell with man coverage underneath Though without being in defensive huddle it’s tough to say. They could be in Cover 4 with "Man Only Deep" adjustments on the outside. The pre-snap alignments of the corners even makes that likely, but the effect is man coverage on the outside with zone coverage in the middle of the field.

By this point Norman is respecting Beckham’s speed. He is again taking outside leverage and counting on safety help, but his hips are already half-turned to sprint deep.

Note: While we’re concentrating on the play of the receivers and defensive backs, I had to highlight the left defensive end. His stunt inside winds up having a huge impact on the play.

Starting at the quarterback position, Manning is using his eyes to manipulate the safeties, drawing the deep safety towards the slant route in the middle of the field. That takes away the coverage over the top of Beckham. The free release afforded by

Norman’s drop off the snap gives Beckham plenty of room to work and getting separation is never really a question.

Beckham has Norman beat, the receiver on the other side of the field won his battle as well, and Rueben Randle has successfully drawn three players into the middle of the field to cover his slant route.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter.

That stunting defensive end I mentioned before hits Manning as he throws, resulting in a badly underthrown ball that falls incomplete.

This play right here illustrates the symbiotic nature of a good defense. The Giants beat the Panthers’ coverage and very well could have scored a touchdown here had Manning been able to step into the throw. However, a strong pass rush by the defensive line bailed the Panthers’ secondary out on this play.

Play 3

Situation: Fourth Quarter, 8:11 - The Giants are once again down by two touchdowns, 35-21. However, they are beginning their furious comeback that made this game go from blow-out to nail-biter.

Once again the Giants are in their 11 personnel package, though Manning is lined up in the shotgun rather than under center. The Panthers are in a nickel package with a Cover-4 shell.

Interestingly, the Giants don’t take a shot to the endzone here, instead opting to move the sticks with all short routes. The tight end runs a comeback route while the receiver to the top of the screen runs a curl route. The running back escapes through the line of scrimmage to run a seam route.

On the right side of the formation, Randle runs out to threaten a bubble screen while Beckham runs the slant — the cornerstone route of the Giants’ offense.

The Cover-4 scheme has both Carolina corners dropping back into deep zone coverages over the top, dividing the field into four zones of coverage.

The Panthers' defense is designed to prevent the ball from going down the field, protecting the end zone. The Giants, however, were’ concerned with that and found plenty of open room in that coverage for a quick strike.

Each of the Giants’ receivers found himself with separation from their defender and an open look at the ball. Manning ultimately decides to go to his go-to receiver in Beckham, who is set to sit down in a big hole in the Panthers’ coverage. Going to Beckham with that void in front of him not only moves the offense, but opens up the possibility for Beckham to make something happen with the ball in his hands. That didn’t happen, however, because the Panthers did a terrific job of swarming to the ball, and limited Beckham to no gain.

Final Thoughts

We now know that he will be following Odell Beckham everywhere but the slot. When the Giants played the Panthers last year, Norman covered Beckham on more than 70 percent of passing plays.

Josh Norman is a very good cornerback. Pro Football Focus rates him as the top corner in the league through the first two games of the season, though he didn’t shadow his opponents’ top receivers until the end of their game against the Dallas Cowboys. The snaps where Beckham and Norman are matched up are set to be some of the most closely watched of the game. When it comes to pure coverage, Norman struggles to match up on Beckham.

That being said, his ability to recognize offensive concepts and route schemes let him put himself in the right spot and cover tightly. With Carolina he benefited from being on a tremendous defense, with a great defensive front in particular. The Panthers’ ability to pressure passers off the edge and up the middle affected quarterbacks and made Norman’s life easier.

It remains to be seen if not having the surrounding talent will impact Norman’s play over time.