Saquon Barkley, Giants' running game stuck in reverse in ugly opener

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants need Saquon Barkley. The running back is their best player and the centerpiece of their offense. The Giants aren't going to win many games if Barkley runs for 6 yards, like he did on Monday night in Joe Judge's head-coaching debut.

So it's hardly a surprise they lost their season opener 26-16 to the Pittsburgh Steelers at MetLife Stadium. Barkley had a frustrating evening, with the aggressive Steelers defense consistently in the backfield.

"I've got to be better," Barkley said. "I've got to be better for the team. Got to find a way to get the run game going. That's just how I truly believe. ... I know that is going to be a key part of our success. I actually believe in it. I still believe in it."

Barkley had eight runs for losses with his offensive line failing to open holes, or seemingly even providing resistance. Barkley was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 11 rushes, tied for the most in a game in his career.

At one point late in the first half, he had eight rushes for minus-8 yards. He had minus-3 yards rushing at halftime.

"Not really too concerned about the stats," Barkley said. "Got to give credit where credit is due. They have a great defensive front."

It's not going to get any easier next week when he faces a tough Chicago Bears defense on the road. But the Giants aren't going to get away from Barkley. They know he is the key to their success.

"Every week is going to be a little different. The Steelers had a very talented front [Monday night]," Judge said. "We are going to stay aggressive with the run game. Saquon is a key part of our team. He is going to be a difference maker in how successful this team is going to be. We are going to keep going to him and I have confidence in our O-line."

Barkley was visibly frustrated on the sideline at times throughout the game. He also had a dropped pass in the first quarter and failed to pick up a blitzing Steeler in the fourth quarter that led to a sack. It was his nightmare evening.

"I guess I probably showed a little emotion on my face," Barkley said. "I'm human at the end of the day. At the end of the day, the moral of the story is we didn't win the game. That is the only thing I am about, trying to find ways to win the game. That is going to be my whole mindset coming back this week playing Chicago. What can we do? What can I do as a player, as a team, to put us in a better position to win the game."

The Giants and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett couldn't dial up anything to create space. Nothing they did against a fast and aggressive Steelers defense worked in the run game.

Most of it wasn’t even Barkley’s fault. Nonetheless, it led to the second-worst game of his professional career. He rushed for 1 yard on 13 carries last year in a loss to the New York Jets.

This isn't the norm and probably won't be in future games. The Giants aren't going to face many defenses as good as Pittsburgh's, and their offensive line is almost certain to play better moving forward.

Silver lining: There was a lot to like from the Giants in Judge’s debut. They battled. They were competitive against a more experienced and talented team.

This is what you wanted to see from the Giants, who were the worst team in the NFL (12-36) over the past three seasons. Their defense looked improved, finding new and different ways to pressure quarterback Ben Roethlisberger through a variety of looks. Their prized offseason acquisitions -- middle linebacker Blake Martinez and cornerback James Bradberry -- played well.

"Just like coach Judge tells us every single time we practice this week, the big jump from Week 1 to Week 2 is where good teams show up," Martinez said.

It might not have been the result they wanted. Still, there was enough to think they will fare better against competition more their speed. The Steelers are expected to be among the AFC's best teams this season.

QB breakdown: The Giants' Daniel Jones completed 26 of 41 passes for 279 yards with two touchdown passes to Darius Slayton. He made more than a few plays in what was mostly a solid performance.

The second-year quarterback had his moments, but he also threw two costly interceptions. The first was when he was fooled by Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the first half. The second was a killer. He threw an ill-advised pass under pressure near the goal line with the Giants down 16-10 late in the third quarter. It was a backbreaker.

"We have to stop with the turnovers," Judge said.

He later added the second interception was "not acceptable."

The good news? At least Jones didn’t fumble despite some big hits and heavy pressure. That was a problem last year when he led the NFL with 18 fumbles, 12 lost.

Troubling trend: This was not the performance tight end Evan Engram was looking for coming off a disappointing 2019. Engram had two catches on seven targets for nine yards.

It was a struggle for Engram right from the start, when he dropped a pass on the opening drive. It didn’t get much better as the evening progressed. Engram struggled with his blocking against a tough Pittsburgh front and was called for offensive pass interference when he finally did make a catch downfield in the second quarter.

This was not what Engram and the Giants were hoping to see, especially in what amounts to a make-or-break season for the fourth-year tight end.