EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The big play is Saquon Barkley’s forte. At any moment, he can bust through the line, shrug off a hit to his leg as if it never happened and race full speed to the end zone.
Barkley’s done it several times during an electrifying rookie season. He’s done a lot well, especially while running for a career-best 142 yards in Sunday’s 38-35 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Except this was a little different. Barkley added a power element that had been missing from his arsenal.
One of the few complaints has been his propensity to dance around the line of scrimmage and try to bust a long run when it’s not there. Pat Shurmur and his coaches have talked about the need to get those “dirty” yards at times. By that they meant that they wanted to see Barkley lower his pads and plow into a hole for 3 to 5 yards more often even when there is not much there.
There were several occasions where Barkley left yardage on the field the previous week in San Francisco. Not on Sunday against the Bucs, when Barkley hit the holes hard and fast, and avoided trying to bounce outside on a pair of up-the-middle touchdown runs. He’s heard what his coaches have preached, and it led to the first three-TD game of his career.
“You take that as a challenge,” Barkley said. “You take it personally. You know that they brought you in here for a reason and you have to get better. That’s how I take it. The same way that I took it was to still stay who I am. I hadn’t really changed anything [Sunday] besides my pace. I just got a feel for the running game and the offensive line, and I think I found a pace that I liked. They challenged me to do that and I did that [Sunday].”
It led to career highs in carries (27) and rushing yards (142). It began with three straight runs through the A-gap and came full circle late in the game when he did it inside the 10-yard line on three straight plays before culminating with the game-clinching touchdown.
Barkley can’t always hit the big play. It’s not possible in this league with the speed and talent on the field. He’s big and powerful enough to gain a few yards when necessary. Add that and an improvement in his pass blocking (often considered the toughest adjustment to the professional game for rookie running backs) and Barkley will be the complete package.
“Early in the game we called runs where, I think I mentioned during the week those dirty 5-yard runs where it’s grimy and tough and just hit it up in there, and he embraced that part of it,” Shurmur said. “I think by doing that early in the game, it really helped him.”
It set the table for what turned into the best game of Barkley’s impressive rookie season. He's sixth in the NFL with 738 yards rushing through 10 games. He’s also first among running backs with 64 receptions.
It also set the stage for the Giants’ best offensive performance in years. It was the first time this season their offensive line dominated. They knew with Barkley running that way right from the start they could get yards at will against the injury-ravaged Bucs defense.
“I felt that we could early in the game. Early, we felt them out and were able to figure out, ‘OK. We don’t think they want to sit in there and play this run,’” starting right guard Jamon Brown said. “It felt like more of a game they wanted to rush the passer. Maybe that is because they are looking at stats.”
The Giants came into the game having allowed 32 sacks. They allowed four more Sunday, but their running game set up the pass game throughout. Eli Manning finished 17-of-18 passing with a pair of touchdowns.
But it was Barkley and the running game that set the tone from the start. Brown said afterwards that the Giants had made a statement with runs on the first three plays. They were going to run right at the Bucs whenever they wanted on Sunday.
It might have turned out different had Barkley not adjusted his game. With the Bucs having closed the deficit to three points in the fourth quarter, the Giants had a first-and-10 from Tampa Bay’s 11-yard line. They ran Barkley up the middle on three straight plays, the final being a 2-yard touchdown behind fullback Eli Penny and center Spencer Pulley with 3:55 remaining. It iced a second straight victory that provided some optimism.
“Saquon is very coachable, and that’s huge for a guy with his talent,” Shurmur said. “He’s willing to listen when we say, ‘Hey listen, if you do this, this will help you.’ He had a couple he bounced [Sunday] with good success. We don’t want to take that out of your game but on a few occasions here, just do this and trust us, and he did it and did a great job with it.”
Shurmur even had a discussion with Barkley this past week about his choice of cleats. Barkley slipped early and often on the road against the 49ers before changing cleats. He said Shurmur was not happy about it.
This seminar led to Barkley talking during the week about being a better pro. He said Sunday after the game the advice from Shurmur was no joke. It was deep and had a purpose. He took it to heart. He learned from the mistake -- there was no slipping on Sunday -- and promised to apply it moving forward.
Kind of like he did with all those "dirty" yards he gained.