“Number one, he can catch the football. That’s first and foremost.”
That’s what Pat Shurmur said of Saquon Barkley right after the running back was drafted. Through three weeks there’s been a clear effort to get Barkley the ball in the passing game — to an extent. Barkley already has 21 receptions, seventh-most in the league, but those have turned into just 137 yards — just 6.5 yards per reception.
Compare that to Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints, who is third in receptions (30) and averages 9.6 yards per reception. Kamara leads the league in yards from scrimmage (430), while 67.2 percent of his yards and 44.8 percent of his touches have come in the passing game.
We know passing is more efficient than running, which is why a running back’s participation through the air has become increasingly important. But so far the efficiency has been part of the problem for Barkley’s inclusion in the Giants’ passing game.
Per Football Outsiders, among 55 running backs with at least six targets, Barkley ranks 44th in DYAR (their counting stat) and 35th in DVOA (efficiency). Meanwhile, Kamara is first in DYAR and eighth in DVOA. It’s not even that the Saints have ignored Kamara on the ground — he’s still eighth in DYAR and 11th in DVOA, opposed to Barkley’s 20th and 21st, respectively.
By Expected Points Added (EPA), Barkley’s receiving contributions have been a net negative for the offense. His 27 targets have resulted in negative-2.1 EPA, though much of that came from the absurdly inefficient check downs during the Dallas game in Week 2 — negative-1.53 EPA. Barkley’s efficiency improved in Week 3 against the Houston Texans when he was moved around a little more (0.65 EPA), there’s still room to improve and the Giants can look to Kamara, who they will face this week, as the blueprint for using Barkley in a more productive way.
Getting into space
One of the best things the Saints do with Kamara is get him into space where he can do damage in the open field. This can come from creating space with route combinations or putting him in mismatches against linebackers in coverage.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, Kamara motioned from the right to left in the backfield. With the defense stretched out with four other routes, Kamara was one-on-one with linebacker Lavonte David. Kamara ran straight towards David and with the possibility of a two-way go in the open field, the defender really couldn’t commit to cutting off Kamara, which left him flat footed. Kamara ran to the outside shoulder of David, then broke his route to the outside which left David with no chance of catching up. Kamara was able to turn the corner and gain 35 yards on the play.
On this play against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2, the Saints came out in 21 personnel — two running backs and one tight end. Both backs were in the backfield with the receiver and tight end to the offense’s right inside the numbers and just outside the hash mark. What that did was bring nine Browns defenders between the numbers and into the box. Kamara was the back to the left with Michael Thomas on the outside. At the snap, Kamara ran a swing route while Thomas ran a slant inside to create a natural pick. That allowed more separation for the back and forced the covering linebacker to try to make a tackle in space — something that’s not going to happen to Kamara quite often.
Kamara and Barkley have been nearly identical with how often they’ve made defenders miss this season. Barkley is second in the league with 17 broken tackles per Sports Info Solutions charting, Kamara is third with 16. 10 of Kamara’s broken tackles have come on receptions, while nine of Barkley’s have come on a pass.
The best tool the Saints have in their passing game is the ability to use common personnel packages, but still go empty. Kamara’s ability to run routes and win from the slot and as an outside receiver opens up a slew of possibilities for the passing offense. Barkley has that ability, too, and it was finally used against the Texans in Week 3, but it could still be used more. Per ESPN data provided by NFL Matchup, the Giants and Saints are tied for the third-most yards per play (9.1) from empty sets in 2018, though the Saints run those at a much higher rate.
Below the Saints come out in a 3x2 set with Michael Thomas in the slot and Kamara outside on the right. The Buccaneers were in zone and Thomas ran a quick out to the sideline. It was second-and-5 and because Thomas’s route went right to the sticks, it drew both of Tampa Bay’s zone defenders on that side. That left Kamara wide open down the field for a gain of 18.
Against the Falcons, the Saints used another out from Thomas against zone coverage to create space for Kamara. When Thomas broke for his out, the slot corner went with him while the outside corner stood his ground to wait for him. Kamara then had a huge hole against the zone and turned up the field for a gain of 21.
The alignment of Thomas and Kamara on the same side of the field puts so much added stress on the defense. Both players could take a ball to the house on any reception and while defenders are trying to stop one from getting that opportunity, one opens up for the other. This is something the Giants could try to do more often with Barkley and Odell Beckham. So far when Barkley has been out wide, it’s mostly been with a tight end in the slot. While that has worked out — that was the formation for Rhett Ellison’s touchdown against Houston — having Barkley and Beckham on the same side could be a deadly pairing.
Using Thomas as a “decoy” on these plays also isn’t taking away from his production — dude is still getting his. Thomas leads the league in receptions (38), has caught 95 percent of the passes thrown his way, and has averaged 132.7 yards per game through three weeks. Using Thomas as a distraction in this way — actually running routes — is also a better use than how the Giants have tried to use Beckham, like his fake end-around action in the backfield that defenses have mostly ignored.
One way to make this duo even more dangerous is by stacking the two. Against Tampa Bay, Kamara started as the outside receiver on the left, but motioned in to a stacked position behind Thomas. What makes stacking so effective is it stops the defense from being able to press and leaves room for receivers to make cuts in front of the corner. Depending on the route combinations, the receivers can go almost any way to confuse the defenders, really putting them at a disadvantage. On this play, Thomas ran a go down the field, which carried Tampa’s three defenders on that side. Again, that left a huge opening for Kamara. The pass was behind the first down marker, but Kamara had enough room to run and make the first two defenders miss for a big gain.
Another thing to note about these Kamara receptions is how often they’re beyond the line of scrimmage. So far this season 63.4 percent of passes thrown Kamara’s way have been beyond the line of scrimmage with just 36.6 percent coming at or behind it. Compare that to Barkley, who has a 26-74 percent split and an average negative-1.3 air yards per target (Kamara is at 2.1).
Using Kamara in the slot or outside also doesn’t have to eliminate the threat of the run or take a back out of the backfield. New Orleans had some plays last season with Kamara and Mark Ingram on the field at the same time and they’ve continued that this season with Jonathan Williams while Ingram is suspended.
On this third-and-8 against the Falcons, Kamara was in the slot to the right with two wide receivers to the outside on that side. Williams was in the backfield to the left. At the snap, Atlanta brought a corner blitz from Kamara’s side, which left three receivers against two defenders. The defense picked up the two receivers who ran downfield while Kamara was open for the reception with room to turn the corner for a first down.
This is something the Giants should look into more while Evan Engram is out with his knee injury. Instead of trying to replace Engram’s impact in the passing game with another tight end — though Ellison does have some ability there — the Giants could run out more formations with Barkley and Wayne Gallman on the field at the same time. Both have the ability to run and catch and the look of two backs on the field increases the chances of the defense staying in base personnel, which would increase the chances of one of those backs getting mismatched on a linebacker. Those are the types of opportunities the offense should want to create.
The Giants are going to see a heavy dose of Alvin Kamara on Sunday. While it’s unknown if they’ll be able to stop him, they could at least take what they see and use it for their own benefit with Barkley for the rest of the season.