EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The bull's-eye was on Saquon Barkley’s back. The Tennessee Titans came into Sunday knowing if they stopped the New York Giants’ rookie running back, they had a strong chance of leaving rainy MetLife Stadium with a victory.
This is Barkley’s new reality. It's happening because he has been performing at such an exceptionally high level and his team is running its offense through the ground game. The Titans -- or whichever team the Giants are facing that particular week -- are going to devise specific plans to pitch around the home-run hitter.
“It comes with the territory, especially when you have a lot of success in the run game,” Barkley said after being held to 31 rushing yards on 14 carries in a 17-0 loss to the Titans despite coming into the contest with four straight 100-yard rushing games. “Obviously, a lot of teams are going to put focus on stopping not me as an individual, but our run game, because we have been so successful in the last five games. We still have to make plays, which we had been doing the last couple of weeks. We just didn’t do that.”
It will help when the Giants have Odell Beckham Jr. on the field to supplement their star running back. Beckham missed his second straight game Sunday with a quad injury.
It will help when there isn’t a consistent downpour and the quarterback has a better day than he did against the Titans. Manning completed 21 of 44 passes for 229 yards with no touchdowns and two turnovers. He had a potential big play on a screen pass to tight end Evan Engram that slipped out of his hands and sailed over the receiver’s head.
Barkley has opened eyes around the league. Teams are gunning to stop him from breaking those 50-plus-yard touchdown runs that have come with regularity. Teams are begging the Giants to win by passing.
“Yeah, I think that is everyone’s plan, honestly,” left tackle Nate Solder said.
Tennessee used eight, even nine guys, in the box at times to make it happen. They moved their front around after the snap to create confusion along the Giants’ offensive line. And then they made a concerted effort to tackle Barkley with more than one defender.
This was what the Titans preached throughout the week.
“He is a really, really good player, and it takes everybody,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “There were times when one guy made the tackle, but the mentality coming in was that we needed more than one guy there.”
What Tennessee really did more than anything was make sure that Barkley never got started. When he gets to the second level, he becomes extremely difficult to tackle. Barkley had two yards before contact on his 14 rushes Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. That is an average of 0.14 yards per rush, his worst in an NFL game. He was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on six of his 14 rushes.
Barkley had three rushes for zero or negative yards in the first half. He had minus-8 yards on his three carries in the first quarter.
“Not positive,” Manning said. “They just seemed like they were getting some push and some penetration. There were a couple of times where there was just some negative yards right off the go. We were losing five or six yards on the run game. It is tough to play that way.”
The Giants' offensive line didn’t have its best game. They struggled to keep blitzing Titans out of the backfield. This is an approach Barkley could see a lot moving forward. Teams will use more run blitzes against the Giants after they worked with regularity on Sunday.
Five different Titans players had a tackle for a loss. Four of them were defensive backs. The other was a linebacker.
“They did a lot of different things,” Barkley said. “They gave us some different looks, different movements to try to create movement up there to try to confuse us. We have to execute; that’s the moral of the story. We didn’t execute as a team, especially on the offensive side of the ball.”
It was the least productive game of Barkley's rookie season; he had 56 yards from scrimmage.
“It’s not a low point,” Barkley said. “It’s a reality check that we have to get back to the drawing board and we have to get better.”