Talent can be a double-edged sword at the running back position.
This is not going to be a deep dive into the question of “whether running backs matter” or not, the debate that continues to drive much of the football discussion on Twitter. We can save that discussion for another time. But when it comes to a player like Saquon Barkley, a true all-around back who is a threat in the passing and running game, his ability to do both things well (and some more things as we will discuss in a moment) can be both a blessing and a curse.
One of the frustrations New York Giants fans have with Barkley’s usage is how he is used -- or misused — in the passing game. Especially in the wake of the Giants’ loss to the New York Jets when he struggled to run the football, there are often cries for getting him more involved in the passing game, even more downfield. This is something that I have also entertained, most notably in a piece last year titled “The Checkdown Conundrum.”
However, before driving to this conclusion again a year later, perhaps we should ask first: Is Barkley’s usage abnormal?
I have said before that part of the beauty of covering the game today -- or being a fan of the game — is the incredible work being down to incorporate data analysis and data visualization into our understanding of football. A website that you need to know is HungryPigRight.com. Created by Michael Chaing (@mlchaing on Twitter) this website builds upon the work previously done by Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight and his website, AirYards.com. Among the many features of HPR is the target analysis and visualization put together for offensive skill players.
For example, thanks to Chaing’s data we can see the target data for Barkley so far this season (note that this data does not include the game against the Jets as of yet):
As you can see, just two of Barkley’s targets this season come more than 10 yards downfield. The rest are around the line of scrimmage, as noted in the density plot. Further still is his target heat map, to drive this point home:
There again you can see in full visual form this fact: Most of his targets are near the line of scrimmage.
Is this abnormal?
To test this I looked at a few different running backs known for their prowess as offensive targets in the passing game: James White, Alvin Kamara, David Johnson and Christian McCaffrey. We can start with White, who is a critical component of the Patriots’ passing game and often is used downfield:
Perhaps we are getting somewhere. White has been targeted more than 20 yards downfield as many times as Barkley has been more than 10 yards downfield. In addition, White has five targets of more than 10 yards downfield, compared with just the two for Barkley. In addition, the heat map for White shows a bit more downfield:
But we also see that the sweet spot for White is behind the LOS.
Now here is Kamara’s target information:
Just one downfield throw. As you might expect, the heat map looks somewhat similar to the previous two:
Maybe the New Orleans Saints have a problem with how they are using Kamara?
Let’s look at McCaffrey, who is getting consideration in some circles for being an MVP candidate:
Nothing more than 20 yards downfield. Just three throws more than 10 yards downfield, with two more right around 10 yards downfield. Not exactly a vertical usage pattern. Again, we see that reflected in the heat map for the Carolina Panthers runner:
Very compressed to one side of the field, and near the line of scrimmage.
At this point a pattern seems to be emerging, but we still have Johnson to examine. I though this might be the most interesting comparison, given how the Arizona Cardinals offense is operating this season under Kliff Kingsbury. So here is the Cardinals RB:
A bit more of a downfield element, on par with White. In contrast to the Patriots running back, however, Johnson’s targets downfield are on both sides of the field. White’s, as you might remember, were all clustered along the right sideline.
Here is the heat map for Johnson:
So while it warms up a bit downfield, again the vast majority of throws are clustered near the line of scrimmage.
What can we glean from this data? Well, we have to consider the sample sizes here, as we are working with less than a season of information. But Barkley’s targets in the passing game mirror in large part what we are seeing from some of the game’s better receiving threats out of the backfield. So maybe the way he is being used is not out of whack?
At this point it makes sense to turn to the film, so I wanted to study his game against the Jets. Again, this is not incorporated in the above data yet — although it might be by the time you read this article — but I wanted to get a sense of how he was used last Sunday. Here are the routes and my charting notes:
Now there might be a few plays that do not get incorporated into this data, where Barkley could have a route called but is forced to stay in the backfield due to pass protection responsibilities taking precedent. However, I think a reasonable assumption would be that any routes he would run on those plays would be clustered near the line of scrimmage. I’ve read a lot of playbooks friends, and I do not recall many instances with a running back running a deep vertical route after checking protection and looking for blitzers.
From my charting, just one of Barkley’s routes last week was five yards downfield or more. But as we saw with the comparison data, that is pretty much in line with expectations.
But one thing I did notice is that third column. The pre-snap movement. Only five times did Barkley adjust his alignment before the play, with one of those being a simple flip of the sides around Daniel Jones in a shotgun alignment. The rest saw Barkley slide outside and the Giants offense go empty. But on those four instances, three times Barkley ran a simple smoke route, and the fourth was the five yard in cut.
He was thrown to on the first smoke route. He could not make the defender miss, and was tackled for a two yard loss.
This might be an area to tweak in the playbook.
If you think about how the Patriots use White, this might stand out to you as well. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels often moves his running back around before the play. He might start in the backfield and motion to the outside, or he might start out on the boundary with the offense in an empty formation, and then adjust back next to Tom Brady. But either way, the Patriots offense looks to accomplish two things with this movement: First, give Brady a pre-snap indicator of the coverage, whether man or zone. Second, it looks to create a potential mismatch somewhere on the field.
For example, if the Patriots shift White to the outside from the backfield, and a linebacker trails him out there, Brady now knows: He has man coverage, and he has White up against a linebacker. That is usually something New England wants to attack. Conversely, if the RB slides outside and a cornerback slides out over him, Brady also learns something. He can be pretty sure zone coverage is in play (unless the defense wants to play a corner over a running back) and therefore there might be another mismatch to play, perhaps with someone like Julian Edelman working inside against a linebacker in zone coverage.
This is all a way to help a quarterback - one arguably the best of all-time - by giving him data pre-snap and matchups to exploit post-snap.
So by moving Barkley around more before the play, the Giants can do the same for their young quarterback.
Of course, that means a sacrifice elsewhere: Pass protection and play-action.
To dip our toes into the “running backs don’t matter” waters for a moment, part of the pro-running back crowd’s argument is that a good running back/running game makes play-action plays more effective. While that is largely disproven by the data -- something Cris Collinsworth pointed out two weeks ago during the Baltimore Ravens win over New England -- you still need a running back in the backfield to fake to. With Barkley split to the outside, either you are running a two running back package, or Jones is faking to himself. So, there is that element to consider.
But the pass protection angle brings us to where the piece started: The curse of ability and talent. If you watch Barkley, he is pretty good when tasked with pass protection responsibilities, as he showed on a few occasions against the Jets. On this third-and-10 play in the second quarter Barkley scans for threats before helping on the penetrating defensive end:
That gives Jones time to find Golden Tate to get the Giants into a manageable fourth down situation. The rookie QB would throw a touchdown on the ensuing fourth down.
Where again Barkley played a role:
Barkley picks up the looping defensive end in the interior, giving Jones the time he needs to hit Darius Slayton for the score.
There was also this block on the edge in the third quarter:
This is a perfect cut block on the backside of this sprint-out concept.
So if you move Barkley to the outside in an attempt to involve him in the downfield passing game, or the passing game at all, you give up both the play-action elements as well as his prowess in pass protection.
A conundrum indeed.
At a bare minimum I would argue that Pat Shurmur needs to try moving Barkley out more, even if it means starting with an empty formation and shifting him back into the backfield. That alone would give Jones some information before the play, in terms of man versus zone coverage, and every little bit of data you can give your quarterback before the play helps. Remember, all the information available to us to study the game helps better inform our opinions. The same can be said for quarterback play.
So while Barkley’s routes and targets are largely in line with what we are seeing around the league, the pre-snap movement is one area where the Giants could benefit from being more creative with their RB.