Youth­ful pair are rea­sons to not be so Blue

New York Daily News - - SPORTS - BY JOHN HEALY Ster­ling Shep­ard has turned into re­li­able tar­get for Eli Man­ning, who hasn’t had Odell Beck­ham for most of sea­son.

It has been the sea­son from hell for the Giants and their fans, and while ev­ery­thing that could go wrong has, there have been some bright spots, be­lieve it or not.

Evan En­gram and Ster­ling Shep­ard, in par­tic­u­lar, have given rea­son for op­ti­mism.

The rookie tight end and sec­ond-year re­ceiver have been called upon to be lead­ers of the of­fense with in­juries to Odell Beck­ham Jr. and Bran­don Mar­shall, and the two have proven that they are more than ca­pa­ble of ful­fill­ing that role.

That was ev­i­dent in Sun­day’s 31-21 loss to the 49ers as Shep­ard fin­ished with ca­reer-highs of 11 catches and 142 yards, while En­gram had six catches for 31 yards and a touch­down — the fourth straight game in which he has found the end zone.

En­gram — who got dinged up in the third quar­ter but re­turned — also tied the fran­chise record for most touch­downs by a rookie tight end (five), set by Bob Tucker in 1970.

Shep­ard’s per­for­mance was high­lighted with a Beck­ham­like one-handed grab in the third quar­ter.

“I’m just try­ing as much as I can,” Shep­ard said af­ter the game. “We didn’t come out with a win, so I’m not very happy about that.”

It is hard to look at the pos­i­tives for a team that is 1-8, but Shep­ard is con­tin­u­ing the trend he set last sea­son as a re­li­able tar­get out of the slot for Eli Man­ning. Last sea­son, Shep­ard was sec­ond among all rookie re­ceivers with eight touch­downs and 683 yards.

While he has just one touch­down this sea­son, he has at least five re­cep­tions in the seven games he has played, in­clud­ing two 100plus yard games.

Shep­ard has also em­braced be­ing the leader in the wide re­ceiver room and de­fault No. 1 re­ceiver.

“I love it. I love any role,” Shep­ard said ear­lier this sea­son. “The role that I had be­fore this, just mak­ing plays and I’m tak­ing that same mind­set to now. Just got to make plays, that’s the bot­tom line.”

Shep­ard did miss two games with a sprained an­kle, leav­ing the Giants with­out him, Beck­ham and Mar­shall, and it showed as they failed to gain more than 133 yards in the air with­out them in ei­ther game.

In their ab­sence, though, was En­gram, who emerged as Man­ning’s new fa­vorite red zone tar­get and be­gan his streak of four straight games with a touch­down.

En­gram has been a sta­ple of con­sis­tency this sea­son, av­er­ag­ing five catches and 40 yards through nine games. So it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the touch­downs would fall in place.

“I never get com­pla­cent,” En­gram said ear­lier this sea­son. “I’m al­ways aim­ing for more. … I’m def­i­nitely get­ting some con­fi­dence in mak­ing plays and be­ing con­fi­dent on the field, but def­i­nitely some things I can be bet­ter at and things I’m go­ing to im­prove on.”

GOOD SPORT

Justin Pugh was named the Giants’ nom­i­nee for the fourth an­nual Art Rooney Sports­man­ship Award on Tues­day. The award was cre­ated in 2014, named af­ter the late Steel­ers owner, and is pre­sented each year prior to the Su­per Bowl. Last sea­son, Colts run­ning back Frank Gore won the award. GETTY

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