Beckham From Right to Left

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Odell Beckham exploded onto the scene last season. His spectacular catch on Sunday Night Football against the Dallas Cowboys was his biggest highlight, but he was one of the best receivers in the NFL. Over the last nine games, he had 81 catches for 1199 yards. If he kept that up pace for an entire season, he would have set NFL records in both categories.

Heading into his second year, Beckham looked like he should be one of the most productive receivers in the NFL. Nothing fundamental changed in New York, with Ben McAdoo still calling plays and Eli Manning still throwing passes. Yet Beckham’s numbers are down, with just 24 catches for 307 yards in the first four weeks of the season. If he keeps that up for all 16 games, he would have just 29 more yards than he had in his nine-game hot streak. What has changed, and will it continue?

Fewer Opportunities Means Fewer Numbers

One thing that stands out about Beckham’s 2014 season was just how involved he was. Despite missing four games, he was targeted 130 times. That right in line with stars like Dez Bryant and Randall Cobb, who played every game.

During his hot streak, Beckham was the single most targeted receiver in the league. He was thrown 117 passes, six more than second-place Demaryius Thomas and 21 more than third-place Antonio Brown. Brown led the league in passes over the whole season, to give an idea of how extreme Beckham’s split was. His 2015 numbers were never likely to match his 2014 pace, simply because it was unlikely he would be thrown that many passes.

And through four weeks, his targets have returned to normal for a top receiver. He has 42 targets, a healthy number that ties him for 11th, in line with T.Y. Hilton, Emmanuel Sanders, and Julian Edelman. This gets to some of the decline in his numbers.

Beckham in 2015 v. 2014 Through the Prism of Advanced Stats

Fine, so Beckham’s raw numbers are down. By Football Outsiders’ cumulative DYAR statistic, Beckham was the sixth-most valuable receiver in the league last year. During his hot stretch when he was targeted so often, he was the most valuable receiver in the league by DYAR, ahead of Bryant, Brown, Jordy Nelson and everybody else. Without the targets, he would not have matched that ranking this year. But he could come close if he was doing the same thing on a per play basis.

He is not. His decline in his raw counting stats is mirrored by a decline in his advanced statistics. He currently ranks just 28th in DYAR. That puts him second even on his own team, behind Rueben Randle. Football Outsiders’ per-play metric DVOA put him ninth last year. This year, he is 34th among the 70 ranked receivers. What accounts for this efficiency difference?

Completions Are Good, Incompletions Are Bad

Beckham excellent last year because he caught most passes thrown his way. By Football Outsiders’ +/- statistic, which accounts for pass distance, he ranked sixth, catching 11.1 passes more than expected.

His catch rate in 2015 has fallen from 70% to just 59%. The table shows his catch percentage by pass distance for the past two seasons.

Table. Beckham Catch Percentage by Pass Distance, 2014 v. 2015

2014 Pass Yards 2015
85% <5 92%
78% 6-15 50%
47% 15+ 30%

What role change has produced this?

Moving From Right to Left

In 2014, Beckham primarily played on the right side of the field. Of his passes, 72 were marked in the play by play as either short right or deep right, versus just 36 to short left or deep left.

In 2015, those numbers have reversed. He has just 13 passes to the right side of the field, compared to 24 on the left.

This change in Beckham’s location is part of an overall shift in New York’s passing game. The Giants were right-handed in 2014. The average NFL team threw 1.05 passes to the right for every pass they threw to the left. New York threw 1.15.

Part of that was Beckham’s presence and effectiveness. As Manning’s trust in Beckham grew, the Giants became ever more right-handed. The final four weeks of the season, Manning threw 1.29 passes to the right for every pass to the left.

Beckham’s Shift in the Context of the Offense

It is easy to surmise McAdoo noticed this tendency in the offseason and was worried opposing coaches would respond by tilting their coverages to the right. Thus, he likely requested Beckham to switch sides, to create a more even-handed passing game. From that perspective, the move has worked. The Giants are actually left-handed this year, throwing 1.05 passes to the left for every to the right.

McAdoo’s move of Beckham was likely premised on having Victor Cruz to complement him. Cruz’s work tilted to the right in 2013 and again in 2014 before he was injured, creating the opening Beckham exploited. Cruz is not yet healthy, and the time frame for when he will be is still uncertain. That will take time, the same sort of time that it will likely take Beckham to become as comfortable on the left as he was on the right. When both those happen, the Giants should have a powerful and efficient passing game. Until at least one of them does, Beckham’s sophomore struggle seems likely to continue.

The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

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The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Steratore will lead 7-person officiating crew for Super Bowl

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NEW YORK (AP) Referee Gene Steratore will lead the seven-person crew of on-field game officials working the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The other members of the officiating crew for the Feb. 4 game are Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge).

The crew has 127 years of NFL officiating experience and 101 combined playoff game assignments.

Steratore entered the league in 2003 as a field judge and was promoted to referee in 2006. He has officiated 11 playoff games, including two conference championships. He was the alternate referee for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Under the NFL officiating program’s evaluation system, officials must be rated in the top tier at their position to be eligible for the Super Bowl. They must have at least five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.

Paul Weidner is the replay official.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL