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The Saquon Barkley usage question: Revisited

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Re-examining his usage in the passing game

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Frustrations continue to mount in and around the New York Giants’ locker room. Speculation about the head coach abounds. Speculation about the general manager is present. Voices are starting to question the long-term viability of Daniel Jones, and wonder if the organization should follow the path set by the Arizona Cardinals and draft another quarterback early in the 2020 draft (a position I strongly disagree with).

And, there is continued frustration about the usage of Saquon Barkley in the passing game.

This is a topic we covered a few weeks back, in this piece analyzing Barkley’s targets, target share, average depth of target and even his target heat maps. The piece dove into how he compared with running backs known as receiving threats, such as Alvin Kamara and James White.

But, here we are again.

In the weeks since this game, there has been perhaps a more concerted effort to get Barkley involved as a receiver, at least during the scripted portion of the games. Then, during the free flowing play calling portion of the contests, Barkley’s targets diminish or change in nature

Take, for example, Barkley’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night. He saw just four targets in the passing game (one of which was the botched flea-flicker, so really he saw three) and two of those came on their first five offensive plays. The scripted portion of Pat Shurmur’s play-call sheet.

Here is what those looked like. On the first, a third-and-7 on the Giants’ opening possession, the offense empties the backfield and puts Eli Manning in the shotgun. Barkley aligns to the right side of the formation and will run a pivot route:

Barkley is working against cornerback Jalen Mills (31) here, who is playing off coverage technique. At the time Manning releases this throw, Barkley has a very nice cushion and space to work after the catch:

However, the pass is high and behind the running back, and the ball falls to the turf:

Now we turn to New York’s second possession of the game. After stopping the Eagles’ offense on a fourth-and-1 play and recovering a loose ball, the Giants’ offense has great field position to start their next drive.

They open with a designed screen to Barkley out of the backfield:

On this snap, the Eagles drop into a Cover 3 coverage scheme. That means that when Barkley releases to get into position for the screen, you can see how this play has a chance to succeed:

Center Jon Halapio (75) is the only player tasked with getting in front of Barkley, but with the defenders playing off and spot dropping into zones, Barkley will have space to work. In addition, tight end Kaden Smith (82) will be in front of this as well, releasing into the secondary in front of the running back.

However, this happens:

Barkley’s feet get tangled up with Halapio’s, and the big center goes crashing to the wet turf. Smith, perhaps living by the code of “we don’t block [bleeping] corners,” bypasses the defender he sees in the flat. That, unfortunately, is safety Rodney McLeod (23). So instead of having a nice road paved for him, Barkley now faces three defenders converging on him after making this catch behind the line of scrimmage.

He cannot make miracles happen:

Two designed plays to get Barkley involved as a receiver, two missed opportunities. He would see only one more legitimate target (again, putting the flea-flicker aside) after that.

This mirrors what we saw three weeks ago against the Chicago Bears. Barkley saw just three targets in that game, the first of which came during their scripted portion of the game. Facing a third-and-3 at the Giants’ 47-yard line on their second possession of the game, they looked to get Barkley a bit vertical.

The Giants run “Mesh Sit” with a running back wheel route to their RB out of the backfield. Before the snap the offense sends a receiver in motion across the formation, and the defense responds by rotating their safeties, an indication to the quarterback that the Bears are in man coverage.

The reads on this play for Daniel Jones (8) are pretty straight-forward. He will peek that wheel route first from the running back, which could be in play due to the man coverage. If that is covered well, he will work the mesh underneath, and finally the sit route over the top of the crossers.

Jones makes the correct read and makes a perfect throw which should convert this first down:

But Barkley drops the throw.

So while there might be a concerted effort to get Barkley involved early as a receiver, at least recently, there have been missed opportunities. Then when Shurmur gets into the more free-flowing portion of the game, the chances do not come as frequently. That is also where you see Barkley being used more to help in pass protection. Again, with the Giants’ struggles this season protecting the passer (the Giants are just 13th in the league in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate statistic, which measures how long a line holds blocks for more than 2.5 seconds) they have relied on using Barkley to help in protection.

As I pointed out in the previous piece, he actually can handle these responsibilities well. That continued against the Eagles. Watch the job he does here on blitz pickup working across the formation, with the Giants’ backed up in their own territory:

This is a tremendous play from Barkley. Philadelphia shows pressure in one A-Gap presnap, the one closest to the RB, but that defender drops and the opposite A-Gap is attacked by safety Malcolm Jenkins (27). Barkley cuts across the formation and flips the safety into the air, giving Manning time in the pocket. The QB, however, bails out of the pocket and the pass eventually falls incomplete.

Of course, prowess as a pass blocker from the running back spot means that on a pivotal play late in the game, you’re tasked with protection first, and by the time you get into the route, the ball is away:

Philadelphia shows blitz, so Barkley needs to scan for pressure before releasing on his check down route. Manning looks to the slant instead and the pass falls incomplete. Barkley, open at the first down marker, can only watch.

The Giants would have one more offensive play in this game, a kneel down.

The answers might not come easily. The Giants have been trying to involve Barkley in games, at least early in contests, but missed opportunities abound. Their protection woes might leave them convinced they need to keep Barkley in to help. Perhaps one thing to consider is that given the state of their tight end room, using Kaden Smith and Scott Simonson in protection - and not Barkley - would be wise. But whatever the solution, time is running out, and frustration is reaching a boiling point.