NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There are few players in the league who cause more trouble for a defense than New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. They are a threat to score anytime they get their hands on the ball -- especially Barkley, a unique talent who has taken the NFL by storm.
"When you say, 'If God could make a running back,' he'd make Saquon Barkley," said Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro, who will face Barkley's Giants (5-8) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) when Tennessee (7-6) travels to New York.
There's a reason Barkley has 13 total touchdowns (a Giants rookie record) and 1,753 yards of total offense in his first season. Vaccaro said Barkley can make defenders miss, so it's critical for the defense to rally when he has the ball. Barkley is dynamic because he can line up anywhere in the formation, which could result in the Titans safeties dropping down in the box against him in man coverage.
"They line him up out wide or in the slot, and he can run the slant. He can run the go. You have to trust your technique," Vaccaro said. "He's explosive and fast, but he's not running routes like a receiver. He's not Antonio Brown or DeAndre Hopkins, but he's a very good pass-catching back."
Barkley is a threat to gain yards after contact, because one defender rarely brings the 234-pound running back to the ground. And if he gets into the open field, he can outrun the defense. He's averaging 5.4 yards per carry, including a season-best 78-yard run against Washington on Sunday.
"It's going to be key that we gang-tackle and swarm," Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "Barkley has that mentality of, 'I'm not going to ever quit on a play.' I've seen some highlights and cut-ups of him where a guy hits him in the backfield for a 3-yard loss, and all of a sudden he pops out of there for a 50-yard gain. We have to bring him to the ground every time."
Beckham missed last week's game against the Washington Redskins with a quadriceps bruise, but if he's in the lineup this week, Tennessee will try to limit his chunk plays -- an area of strength for the Titans. Their defense ranks fifth in the NFL against the pass, allowing 219.2 yards per game, and has allowed 37 explosive passing plays (20 yards or more), which is tied for eighth fewest.
"We have to try to defend those slants and those quick gains," head coach Mike Vrabel said. "He's [Beckham Jr.] very athletic and has great hands, good burst and suddenness. He does a good job of breaking tackles. It'll be a challenge for us. We better be ready to play defense. This is a much-improved team."
According to ESPN Stats and Information research, the Titans' defense is allowing an average of 4.7 yards after the catch this season. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers (4.5 yards) are allowing less. However, Beckham's ability to find a crease after catching a quick slant shows his elite burst and skills as a runner. It forces defensive backs to stay over top of him, ensuring that he's tackled after making the catch. A more aggressive cornerback such as Malcolm Butler could pay for jumping a route and not being able to break up the throw.
Titans defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs knows a dynamic player such as Beckham dictates coverage, often drawing extra attention from safeties to prevent him from getting deep.
"I'm not saying you double- or triple-cover him, but everybody better be running to the ball," Coombs said. "He can break a tackle, and that 5-yard route can turn into a 60-yard gain. He excels at that. Our focus will have to be swarming to the ball. This guy is an elite receiver. We will have to be on our A-game every single down. You better defend him from snap to finish with a lot of guys."