Heading into Week 13, the Giants rank 21st in the NFL in rushing yards per game. But of the 11 teams behind New York on this list, only three offenses have fewer total rushing attempts. Only 10 teams average more yards per rushing attempt than the Giants. To the naked eye, you would think this rushing attack is far worse than what these numbers tell us.
But much more alarming, Saquon Barkley has only run for 461 yards and averages just 3.9 yards per carry. In his rookie season, Barkley ran for more than 1,300 yards and averaged an even 5.0 yards per rush. He also caught 91 balls compared to just 35 so far this year. Over his last six games, Barkley has only surpassed 100 total yards of total offense once. Barkley has only appeared in eight games thus far in 2019, but this is an alarming dip in production that needs to be examined.
As is almost always the case when there is a big problem in the NFL, many are to blame for this situation. First off, clearly Barkley isn’t as healthy as last year because of his injured ankle. He isn’t as explosive, powerful or as sudden changing directions as he was during his rookie season. That is the good news in a way, as he is likely to get back to health in the big picture.
But let’s focus more on the present. Barkley isn’t running as well. That is obvious. The Giants have had a lot of injuries with their wide receivers and Evan Engram and obviously have an unproven rookie, Daniel Jones, behind center. Defenses are keying on Barkley. But is that really all that different than last year? The answer is yes, as Odell Beckham was on this roster in 2018 and as importantly, Eli Manning could get New York out of bad play calls and read the defense expertly pre-snap. But it wasn’t like Barkley was an afterthought to defenses in 2018.
The quarterback’s work pre-snap is a huge aspect of what is going on here. There are many examples of Daniel Jones coming out of the huddle, surveying the defense with a plethora of defenders in the box. The ball gets snapped without an adjustment by the rookie, the ball is handed to Barkley and the runner is just swallowed up before anything can get going. Asking Jones to be Manning in this regard is unfair, but the pretty clear notion that New York’s coaching staff doesn’t trust Jones to get out of a poor play call is alarming. We don’t know where Jones is mentally, but this is very telling. Still, at this point, what do the Giants have to lose in giving Jones more freedom in this regard? It can’t hurt. It is time to let the rookie learn in the heat of the moment.
How about the blocking? Kevin Zeitler has been a welcome addition and is the Giants best lineman. But he is also better in protection than moving big bodies in the run game. The opposite is true for Will Hernandez. But the results for Hernandez have been underwhelming this year as a road grader. His Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade is down nearly 15 points from his rookie season (60.0 to 45.9). The Giants really need to consider replacing center Jon Halapio this offseason. He is just a place holder rather than an answer or asset. At tackle, Nate Solder has been a disaster overall when considering what he costs. Mike Remmers also is well below average in this capacity. Unfortunately for New York, this offensive line is further away from being complete than you would expect when considering all they have put into it in the past two offseasons.
But Barkley deserves more blame for this situation than many are willing to give him, and here is why: He is really poor in pass protection. Why does that influence the Giants running game so much? Well, defenses now realize that Barkley offers little in protection. When he is in the game, they are blitzing him and forcing Barkley to pass protect - which isn’t going well. The Giants know this as well and in turn, run the ball to Barkley to counter this. But, as so often happens in these cat and mouse games, the defense then expects run when Barkley is in and the Giants passing game can’t make them pay by getting out of the play call or distributing the ball elsewhere.
Getting Engram back in the lineup sooner than later will help for sure. It is also very promising that Golden Tate now owns the slot role and Darius Slayton has established himself as a potent young wide receiver. Even better, Sterling Shepard returned to the lineup in Week 12, played a very high percentage of the snaps and demanded a lot of targets. Shepard can attack all levels of the field. New York will have plenty of quick-hitting options to battle the blitz and simply give the offense overall more methods of moving the football. A stable passing attack will force defenders out of the box and open room for Barkley on the ground.
The other thing that can’t be ignored is Barkley’s lack of production as a receiver. For a big back, what Barkley can do in this phase is simply amazing. Of course, his ankle injury has hurt in this regard, but the Giants need to incorporate him more in the screen game or detach him out of the backfield much more often - we know he doesn’t pass block well, anyway.
Many are to blame for Barkley’s inability to get going this year and if he doesn’t step up big in the coming weeks … and he gets a favorable matchup at home vs. Green Bay this week … it might be time to shut Barkley down. But if the ankle is okay, it might instead be time to really start building around him, but in a different manner, in an offense that should be producing better than it has.