The New York Giants have several interesting names at the wide receiver position, highlighted, of course, by Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. But even behind them, names like Corey Coleman, Quadree Henderson and Cody Latimer stand out.
Coleman and Henderson were mid-season additions, while Latimer was brought on to play a pivotal role alongside Beckham and Shepard, but early-season injuries landed him on injured reserve (IR).
In Latimer’s absence, six-year NFL veteran and former LSU teammate of Beckham, Russell Shepard, has stepped up in a big way. And to date, he’s had no bigger moment — or, more accurately, moments — than he did in a 30-27 victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 13.
Coming out in the second half, Shepard found himself on the receiving end of a 49-yard touchdown pass courtesy of Beckham. But what made the entire play all the more impressive was that it was completely freelanced.
As Beckham explained after the game, Shepard was intended to block Bears linebacker Khalil Mack as Beckham ran the reverse or tossed the ball to Bennie Fowler Jr. Instead, Shepard cut loose and ran down the field much to the surprise of Beckham.
“We drew a play up, I told Bennie (Fowler) I don’t care what happens, I’m going to throw it to you and they double covered him and this grown man from LSU who I’ve played with for a long time, I saw him down the middle of the field and I was like this can’t be real and I just launched it to him. It’s all good, he wasn’t supposed to do that, but he’s just playing football and he came up with a huge play for us,” Beckham told reporters after the game. “Very, very, very big play.
“I was about to take off running and like I said it didn’t feel real because I just saw him running down the field and it was never like that in practice or how we drew it up, nothing. I just saw him and I was like I’m just going to give him a chance, I’m going to put it in that area and he came up big for us.”
Like Beckham, Shepard acknowledged the freelance element of the play following the game, suggesting it was situational and an instinctual reaction. He didn’t actually expect Beckham to throw him the ball.
“I just don’t think he saw me. It’s one of those things that we kind of repped one time, something that we did throughout the week. Just playing football. Once I saw all the safeties suck in, the field was wide open, and he did an amazing job of seeing me. For him to see me, and not know I was supposed to be there, it’s crazy,” Shepard said. “It’s something that we had, but the fact that he threw it to me, that was different. Originally, it was a frontside play, and he just did an amazing job at making a play.”
In addition to his big touchdown reception, Shepard had a second catch for 10 yards, which gave him a team-leading 59 on the day. But beyond just hauling in both of his targets and going in for a score, Shepard came back later with a play that may have topped it.
With 2:26 remaining in the game, the Giants punted the ball back to Chicago. The punt coverage was terrific and, led by Shepard, three players — Antonio Hamilton and Zak DeOssie the others — combined to down the ball at the 2-yard line.
“You know what, made the best play of it. He caught the ball, I gave us an opportunity to get the ball, and then he got the ball. He made a great play. The guys secured the ball. It was just a great play all around for our team. I think our special teams, last month, have been playing some really good football, and I think we’re really helping this team out,” Shepard said. “We practice that. That’s something that we practice as gunners. That’s something that we take pride in. When you can affect the game like that, that’s huge, and we were excited to be able to be in that opportunity.”
Asked about Shepard during his post-game press conference, head coach Pat Shurmur had a smile so big he could hardly speak.
“He’s a winner, he’s gritty, and he’s got a real team-like presence. When you’re around him, for him to have those types of contributions good, but I see that in his spirit and he’s really brought that to our team,” Shurmur said.
When a team aims to change a negative culture, players like Shepard become invaluable. They quietly go out and do their job, making plays when their number is called and having an impact on the field with whatever amount of time they get. And in Week 13, Shepard’s impact helped lead to a wild and stunning victory.