What to watch for when Josh Norman, Odell Beckham Jr. face off
Not only are Josh Norman and Odell Beckham Jr. about to face off again for the first time since their infamous encounter at the end of last season, but we are going to see Washington use Norman to track Beckham across the field—not simply line him up on the left side.
What makes this matchup even better this time around is that Norman may be playing even better than he was a year ago when he rolled into that matchup as the best corner in the game on a string of elite play.
This season, he sits atop PFF’s cornerback rankings after two games with a grade of 91.6. He is the only corner above 90.0, and 6.2 ahead of the next highest grade (Browns CB Joe Haden). Norman ended the 2015 season with a grade of 87.8, and even before the game versus the Giants, he had been no higher than he is this season.
Over the first two games of 2016, Norman has faced two of the game’s best receivers in Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant. He hasn’t faced them exclusively, however, because Washington hasn’t used him to track those receivers (until the fourth quarter against Dallas, when he began to track Bryant), but he has seen significant snaps against each. Those receivers were targeted four times with Norman in coverage, and all four passes were broken up.
What happened last season
The prevailing wisdom is that Beckham torched Norman last season when the two went head-to-head. On just the fourth play of the game, he was burned deep in a one-on-one matchup with Beckham that should have been a 52-yard touchdown, but the Giants’ receiver dropped the ball. He set up Norman nicely with the route, but essentially just ran past him for what should have been a huge score early in the game. From that point, Norman appeared to get in his head, and the next five targets towards this matchup yielded just three catches for 18 yards.
Had the game ended at that point, you could make the case for either player having come out on top (from a pure football standpoint, not counting the loss of control and unnecessary roughness penalties), but there was still one definitive play to come. With the Giants trailing by a score, Beckham beat Norman a final time in the red zone for a touchdown with a slant-and-go to tie the game.
The Panthers ultimately found a field goal as time expired to snatch the win back, but the final word on the Norman-Beckham battle went to the New York Giants WR.
Often determining the success of a cornerback’s job in coverage is whether he gave up any big plays. Against the Giants last season, Norman was beaten badly twice, but got lucky when a drop meant it only resulted in one big score, not two. If he avoids only one of those big plays this time, the matchup becomes much more even; if he eliminates both, suddenly this becomes a shutdown performance. Such are the margins we are dealing with in these battles.
In the slot
Norman is going to shadow Beckham from left to right, but when the receiver lines up in the slot, Norman will remain outside. That gives the Giants the option of getting Beckham away from Norman’s coverage if they want to, simply by lining him up more as a slot receiver. That method of tracking is what the Panthers did with Norman a year ago, but Beckham by and large stuck to the outside. Of 76 snaps in that game, he was lined up outside on 58 of them, with only the remaining 18 coming in the slot.
The 23.7 percent of snaps Beckham spent in the slot against the Panthers last season is right on line with the 21.6 percent he spent there overall in 2015 (or off by a snap or two on his season average), but it raises the question of whether or not the Giants will take advantage of that prospect this time around.
So far this season, teams have been picking on Bashaud Breeland on the other side of Norman, because Washington was allowing him to face the No. 1 receiver; however, their slot corner may be even more vulnerable to attack. Dashaun Phillips has been covering the slot this season, has 92 coverage snaps to his name through two games, and has given up a catch on 83.3 percent of the throws he has been targeted on. More concerning is that those passes have gone for an average of 17.0 yards per catch; typically slot corners allow lower yards-per-catch figures than outside corners, not higher.
We are dealing with low sample-size numbers when looking at Phillips through two games, but if you were ranking the Washington corners in order of which was most likely to lose a one-on-one matchup with Beckham, Phillips would top the list. Breeland likely isn’t an option with Norman now tasked with tracking Beckham, but Phillips is if that shadow doesn’t extend to the slot.
Maybe Beckham will get the better of the matchup again, and the Giants won’t need to make any adjustments, but given how well Norman is playing this season, it seems smart to think about increasing Beckham’s slot snaps and attacking a weaker link in the defense.
Three other WAS-NYG matchups of note
Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz vs. Bashaud Breeland and Dashaun Phillips
If we assume that Beckham and Norman will be left fight it out, the other outside spot and the slot will still be intense battlegrounds. Breeland has been battered so far this season against receivers he wasn’t equipped to cover (Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant), but the Giants’ second and third receivers give him much more of a fighting chance. Phillips remains the weak link of the trio, and any of the Giants’ top three receivers can line up in the slot and go after him.
LT Trent Williams vs. DE Olivier Vernon
Vernon hasn’t been quite the pass-rushing force the Giants had hoped for, but he has been excellent against the run through two games, and has still notched seven total QB pressures. Trent Williams is one of the more powerful tackles in the game and has allowed just a single hurry in 125 snaps so far. This will likely be a tough, bruising, physical encounter.
TE Jordan Reed vs. S Landon Collins
A year ago this would look like a mismatch, but since then Collins, has become more of an in-the-box safety that will cover TEs closer to the line of scrimmage—a lot like Eric Berry in Kansas City—and Reed hasn’t been nearly as productive to start the season with Kirk Cousins struggling at QB. Collins leads the Giants with six defensive stops on the year and has been a much-improved player.