As long as Odell Beckham Jr. has been a member of the New York Giants we have heard this. It’s difficult to get the ball down the field because opposing teams play soft zones. They use Cover 2 crowd the middle of the field. They run linebackers back into passing lanes.
The Giants’ passing attack then is reduced to the underneath throws, the catch-and-run stuff, get the completion and hope Beckham or someone else could create magic.
Sometimes that has worked. Too often is has not.
The Giants drafted Evan Engram a year ago believing that a tight end who would threaten the seams vertically would require attention from defenses and open space for Beckham. Only, Engram was rarely used as a vertical threat.
Well, another commonly accepted way of attacking the soft zones, the six- or seven-man fronts used by defenses bound and determined to prevent the big play, to keep everything in front and make opposing offenses go the long way is to run at them.
To that end, new GM Dave Gettleman drafted spectacular running back Saquon Barkley No. 2 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Only so far it’s not working out the way the Giants had hoped. Beckham has 30 receptions in four games, on pace for a career-best 120. Barkley has 456 yards from scrimmage, 114.0 per game, and has gotten to at least 100 in all four games.
The problem, though, is that the Giants haven’t really been able to get both players performing at their spectacular bests at the same time. At least not often enough. The Giants have scored fewer than 20 points in three of their four games.
Sunday, while Beckham and Manning were struggling to get on the same page and the Giants were unable, unwilling or both to challenge the weak New Orleans secondary down the field, Barkley and the running game languished as an afterthought.
Barkley carried only 10 times, a season-low, for 44 yards. He caught six passes, but only a couple of those were designed plays. Most were check downs or dump offs with Manning under pressure or unable to find a downfield throw he liked.
Sunday evening, with the emotion of Sunday’s loss still simmering, coach Pat Shurmur was asked if he regretted not running the ball more with Barkley.
“No, I think there were times we tried to run the ball. I don’t regret it, he needs to touch the ball,” Shurmur said. “Certainly by the looks of things here, him touching the ball more would be good.”
Monday afternoon, having watched the film and had time to re-consider the way the game went, Shurmur had a somewhat different take.
“Looking back on it, I think Barkley had 18 touches yesterday. I’d like to have a couple more probably, and those being runs certainly. We want to run the ball, we want to run the ball and when we want to throw it, we want to throw it, and we want to be explosive and efficient doing it. That’s the reality of it,” he said.
“I wish I would’ve called more runs. That’s the reality of that, because I think the ball in Saquon’s hands is a good thing.”
It’s a good thing because Barkley is a terrific player. He is averaging 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. It’s a good thing because when you feed him the ball that’s more opportunities for him to do things like break 28 yard runs, which he did Sunday. It’s a good thing thing because when he does that, and the defense knows they will be getting a steady dose of Barkley, they have to creep to the line of scrimmage. They have to load the box. They have to abandon that soft zone more often.
Which should open more throwing lanes for Manning, lead to more opportunities to get the ball down the field and, ultimately, more big-play chances for Beckham.
Barkley didn’t hesitate when asked what he thought the answer was to the soft zones played by the Dallas Cowboys and by the Saints.
“Personally, run the ball. That’s something where I step in, where the offensive line steps in, and that’s something that we’ve got to take personal,” Barkley said When we see a team playing cover two and playing soft zone, that has to be disrespectful to us and that’s something we are really aware of and we hope to solve that problem really soon.”
In both of those games, though, the Giants seemed to move away from their rookie running back. He carried just 11 times against the Cowboys and Manning threw a season-high 44 passes. In a game that wasn’t out of reach until the fourth quarter. Sunday, same thing. Only 10 runs for Barkley, a second 40-pass game (41 overall) for Manning. Again, New Orleans didn’t pull away until midway through the fourth quarter.
Barkley referred to Beckham as “unstoppable,” which is really what the Giants were hoping the combination of Barkley, Beckham and their other play-makers would be.
Manning passed the ball eight times in the red zone on Sunday vs. the Saints. Not a single one of those throws went toward Beckham. It looked as though he was the primary target on perhaps one of those throws but was covered.
“What teams do in the red zone typically is they’ll double your star and then you move on,” Shurmur said.
The Giants need to figure out a way to get Barkley and Beckham complementing each other, a way that forces defenses to have to make decisions. Too often so far this season each star has been a decoy, or an after thought, or a safety valve.
What they haven’t been often enough, especially together, are weapons that used to attack defenses.
Shurmur said Monday that the Giants have to “Keep looking for that right combination of things that gets us in the end zone.”
Yes, they do. They need to find it before it’s too late. If it isn’t already too late for this season.