The final Giants game of the year was meaningless for the standings, yet the coaching staffs did not necessarily agree, as both units kept their starters in for the entire game. Certain names like the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliot did not dress, but overall, both head coaches were pushing for a good ending for the regular season. Ultimately, the result was another Giant loss to finish the season at 5-11, but it produed game film that was more revealing for 2019 than many may think. This was certainly the case for Big Blue receiver Cody Latimer, playing in only his 7th game of the season. This author, in this column and on the Big Blue Banter Podcast, has made the point that Latimer is a key cog in the offensive machine going forward. Against a very good Cowboys secondary, he did not disappoint.
Latimer finished the day with four catches for 72 yards and one touchdown on six targets, which was by far his most productive game in a Giants uniform. His 6’2″ 215 lb frame with 32 5/8″ arms puts him into the upper half or quarter percentile for receivers, but it’s his use of those physical traits and athletic ability, body control, and strength that make him the best receiver equipped to compete at the catch point on the roster. What does this look like? Let’s look at a 3rd-and-long in the middle of the 4th quarter:
Latimer was a standout basketball player growing up and flashes those skills here with the subtle move forward to the quarterback after his route terminates. This places his body firmly between the near zone defender and the catch point. He flashes his catch radius, high pointing the ball with ease, ultimately leading to the Giants to converting on 4th down. These types of receivers have almost gone out of favor in recent years as the spread elements have proliferated in the NFL, unleashing a premium on smaller-sized, agile slot receivers who win early in the down and can take the top off of a defense with their legs. Latimer’s traits set him up as the ideal lone-X wide receiver, and in the Giants’ current receiver group these elements are pivotal to opening up zone and man coverage matchups for other receivers.
Winning in isolation generally necessitates having good hands to actually complete the catch. This sounds basic, but even at the NFL level, this separates the great from the good receivers. In Latimer’s case, at the end of the second half he used both hands independently to make a great one-handed catch for a touchdown. Please see below:
The route is a rhythm fade; many fans do not realize this, but there is a pretty strict way these routes are run across all levels of football. It is not a see-it-and-throw-it type of play. Manning takes a three-step drop from shotgun, and Latimer’s outside release does not immediately win him the vertical space. This is what we said earlier; not all receivers win early in the route, but Latimer’s very active inside hand aids him in getting that separation and alerting him when the competitive cornerback is attempting to play through the catch point. His inside hand acts as a barrier while his outside hand catches the well-placed fade coming down at roughly 25 yards, the upper end of the range for a rhythm fade. Latimer’s spatial awareness to make this catch keeping his feet in bounds is impressive.
This was not the only impressive fade route run by Latimer. Late in the 4th quarter on a key 3rd down, the Giants went to an empty backfield. Latimer is in the outer slot, and as I have stated in this column, empty sets expose matchups from which a QB can choose. Latimer is facing defensive back Anthony Brown who, like most of Dallas’s secondary, is having a very good season. Please see the below slot fade or smash concept:
This slot fade from the outer slot allows the potential for a two-way go against a defensive back, often with a little more air for the receiver at the release. Latimer flashes his third gear speed after a few strides, getting separation with the more lateral release. Again, the Cowboys’ defensive back is able to recover and stay competitive in the route, and Latimer is forced to make a very athletic one-handed catch. The smash concept was an early-season favorite for Manning, often targeting Sterling Shepard. Both types of rhythm fade depicted above show Manning throwing well-placed balls with near perfect timing. This was a big part of the pre-season bullishness in this column for the expectation for Manning to thrive in the simple complexity of Pat Shurmur’s playbook, coupled with the receiving group. Ultimately, injuries to Latimer did not help the situation. He is pivotal to the passing attack no matter no is under center next season.
The other aspect of Latimer’s game that can’t be ignored is his blocking ability, particularly in space. This is another aspect where his basketball skills emerge; he is not overly physical, but his frame, athletic ability, and willingness occupy the space for safeties and corners make him an adept blocker. See the below draw by Saquon Barkley from late in the 3rd quarter:
Much is made in the media (and even stoked by head coach Pat Shurmur’s pressers) of running against two-high safety shells. This column last week showed how the Giants’ run game was stopped in weeks 15 and 16 by factors outside of the number of men in the box. This week, however, shows how on the above 2nd-and-20, the Cowboys move to the two-high look, and that opens up space for the draw opportunity. Against a deep half safety, it means approaching via an inside release with the receiver reading the correct angle to cut off the defender. This fits Latimer’s skillset well, but also the strategic element can’t be ignored. Latimer as a bona fide lone-X receiver could over time dictate more two-high looks from defenses (as opposed to simply rolling coverage to Odell Beckham). Thus, instead of waiting for down-and-distance opportunities (no coordinator wants to rely on 2nd-and-20), the Giants’ 3×1 sets could dictate coverage shells to the defense. After forcing two-high, with blockers like Latimer the run game can punish backside safeties, and Shurmur loves to run into the boundary. This is true complimentary offensive football.
The Giants are now faced with the choice of signing a receiver like Cody Latimer. Many fans love to focus on the number of touches a running back or a receiver gets and their “value.” With a player like Latimer, his complimentary skill set can make a big difference for the primary drivers of the offense (Barkley and Beckham alike). Even if targeted just five or six times per game, the bona fide threat of an X-iso wide receiver with the flexibility to play inside is very important. There is more that goes into scheming receivers open than just Xs and Os; putting on tape that an X can beat a boundary corner is a headache that defensive coordinators do not want to have to handle. Let’s hope the front office realizes that this offseason and the offense can continue to make strides into 2019.