Gunter Takes the Lead Against Beckham

“I did my part,” said LaDarius Gunter. Called upon to put explosive receiver Odell Beckham in the crosshairs, the Packers’ cornerback stood up to the challenge. He got some help from his teammates, too, and a group of shirtless Giants wide receivers who had trouble handling the ball as the Packers moved on in the playoffs Sunday.

In the end, the hands of the New York Giants’ wide receivers may have killed their season, not their bare chests.
   
Sure, Monday morning might bring a different narrative on sports talk shows and social media - about how Odell Beckham and Co. should not have been soaking up the sun on a boat in Miami last Monday (albeit on their day off) or going shirtless during pregame warm-ups Sunday afternoon in Green Bay. (For heaven’s sake, it was cold enough for frost bite!)

In reality, those snapshots probably had little effect on their ability to hang onto the ball in tough conditions (14 degrees with a wind chill of 4). Four dropped passes early in a Wild Card playoff game against the Green Bay Packers short-circuited what could have been a big start for the Giants at Lambeau Field. Instead, the Packers flipped the tables with another Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary pass to end the first half before going on to win easily, 38-13, to advance to the divisional round next Sunday at Dallas.

“We had a lot of focus on No. 13 (Beckham). He’s a tremendous player,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “I thought we did a good job keeping him in check. Hey, that’s a talented, talented perimeter group. I thought Eli (Manning) threw the ball very well today. We were scrappy, and we got it done.”

The epitome of scrappiness might be Packers cornerback LaDarius Gunter. He fared well against Beckham in a regular season meeting but drew a much tougher assignment for this playoff contest. Instead of playing one side of the field, the Packers called on him to match Beckham to whichever side the explosive receiver went.

“That was the game plan,” said Gunter.

Early on, the Giants had their shots. On the game’s first drive, Beckham was matched against safety Morgan Burnett but failed to pull in a pass on third-and-5 from the Packers’ 35. After a Packers three-and-out on offense, the Giants put together a field-goal drive that should have been a touchdown drive. Beckham dropped a deep pass in the end zone after beating Gunter, as did Sterling Shepard against Micah Hyde. Another Shepard mishandle on a third-and-3 slant from the Packers’ 8 led to Robbie Gould’s 26-yard field goal.

“We didn’t handle the ball particularly well tonight,” said Giants coach Ben McAdoo. “We didn’t handle the ball well enough to win against a good team.”

The Giants finished just 5-of-16 on third downs for the game. Getting them off the field in five such situations in the first half helped the Packers keep the deficit to just 6-0 until late in the second quarter.

While teammates after the game praised Gunter for his play – “That’s a bad boy right there. … He balled out,” said Hyde – it took a team effort to keep Beckham in check. He came into the game with six plays of 40 yards or more during the regular season (tied for the league best) and had 20 plays of 20-plus yards (fifth best). But while tight end Will Tye escaped a Blake Martinez tackle attempt for a 51-yard play and receiver Tarvarres King caught a 41-yard touchdown, Beckham’s long gain this day was just 11 yards. A Gunter blitz from the slot, a Julius Peppers pressure on Manning and a combination coverage from linebacker Jake Ryan and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix forced incomplete passes to Beckham in the second half. On his final target of the game, Beckham found a hole in the Packers’ zone coverage and got two hands on a high Manning pass but could not hang on for what would have been a first down on third-and-11 early in the fourth quarter. On the Packers’ next offensive drive, they scored a touchdown and took command, 31-13.

Even with a team-leading 11 targets, Beckham caught just four passes. In terms of catch percentage, he had just two worse games in his career: 3-of-9 earlier this season at Minnesota and 4-of-12 in 2015 against the Patriots. His 28 receiving yards also tied his second-lowest single-game total in 43 career games.

Packers defenders gave credit for trusting their checks on the back end, pressuring Manning at times, and getting physical with the Giants’ receivers at the line for keeping down the explosive plays. They also praised Gunter, who fared well earlier this season, too, against Beckham at Lambeau Field. On Oct. 9, Beckham had just five catches for 56 yards in 12 targets.

“I did my part for the team to win. That’s all I can ask for,” said Gunter. “I just played my game. We just wanted to disrupt their timing with Eli. They’re great at making checks at the line. So, we just wanted to throw them off rhythm and I did that.”

Afterward, in the Giants’ locker room, Beckham diffused his trip to Miami with his teammates as having any part in their subpar performance.

“That sounds typical to me,” said Beckham. “At the end of the day, I went through practice, had zero drops, zero missed assignments. There was nothing that could connect seven days ago to today and how we played and executed. There’s just nothing in the world. That’s not realistic. I think it did a great job at creating distractions for us. It’s unfortunate and that’s just the way this world is. There’s just no way you could connect something that happened seven days ago to this game today and how we came out and played and how the Packers have won seven in a row and how they scored 38 points and how they executed and came up with the third downs. They did what they needed to. The connection is just not there, in my opinion. But everybody’s going to have their own opinion.”

Added McAdoo: “I think he played with tremendous effort. I wouldn’t say he didn’t play with effort. We just have to handle the football better.”

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