EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Yes, Saquon Barkley is back. It’s safe to say after seeing him compile 194 total yards, score a touchdown and punch in the game-winning 2-point conversion in Sunday’s 21-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
It wasn’t just the long runs — Barkley had a 68-yard scamper in the third quarter and then a 33-yard run in the fourth — that suggested the New York Giants were getting a much closer facsimile of the pre-injury version of their fifth-year running back. It was the way he consistently ran with power and explosion and without the hesitation that hindered him last season off a torn right ACL that signified his return.
It was also an extension of what was on the field all summer.
“He ran hard like he has all [training] camp,” coach Brian Daboll said.
It took only a few plays to realize that Barkley was significantly more confident in himself and his body. He admitted this was the case this summer, but it was on full display early in the season opener.
Barkley caught a pass in the left flat on the Giants’ fifth offensive play of the contest and raced to the edge, where he was met at the 27-yard line by Titans cornerback Kristian Fulton. This was a play last season where Barkley likely would have scooted out of bounds and taken the modest 3-yard gain. But this time, moving at full speed, he plowed into Fulton and drove him back to the 31-yard line.
The play ultimately went for a 6-yard gain on second-and-10 and set up a third-and-short that the Giants converted.
“Mindset. More confidence,” Barkley said afterwards about what was different on Sunday from last year.
Barkley, 25, admitted he tried to ignore the idea that the first year back from a torn ACL is tough in 2021. No player is the same. But he was fooling himself. Then he injured his ankle by stepping on the foot of Dallas Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis, and the season quickly went awry. The No. 2 overall pick of the 2018 NFL draft had his third straight injury-ravaged campaign. He was such a shell of his former self that his rushing yards over expectation per carry (RYOE/C) last season was minus-0.28, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That essentially says on average he was a below-average running back.
Barkley’s RYOE/C was plus-4.87 on Sunday against the Titans, meaning he produced almost five yards better than the average ball carrier would have per carry, the third-best number for a running back in Week 1.
“I knew we were going to have a great game, and we were going to make some plays. It was just when the timing was right,” Barkley said. “It wasn’t really just a mindset change, it’s going out there and just believing in myself, trusting myself and letting my God-given ability show.”
The numbers insist it is all still there. For instance, Barkley reached 21.1 miles per hour on his 68-yard run down the left sideline in the third quarter, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That was the fastest speed he has recorded since Week 17 of the 2019 season and the fourth-fastest time he clocked in his career.
The speed, explosion and power are back. Doubt Barkley at your own peril, according to his teammates.
“Man, we got the best back in the league,” wide receiver Sterling Shepard said. “He showed it [Sunday]. There ain’t nothing else to be said. Love the way he’s been running the ball at practice, and he brought it straight to the game field. I’m happy and so proud of him because he’s been working his a– off, and he deserves everything. I can’t wait to see him the rest of the season.”
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It’s something the Giants haven’t seen much of over the past three years because of Barkley’s ankle and knee injuries. In fact, quarterback Daniel Jones hasn’t played alongside a fully healthy Barkley for any extended stretch since being named the starter in 2019. And he liked the feeling to start 2022.
“You saw the explosiveness, and it was fun to watch him,” Jones said. “He’s had a great camp and seeing where he’s come from — he’s battled back from a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries. To get out here and do what he did [Sunday] was a lot of fun to watch as a teammate and as a friend.”
The Giants’ offensive line also deserves some credit. While they struggled in pass protection, allowing 18 pressures on 26 dropbacks, they were able to open big holes for Barkley to explode through, especially in the second half. The Giants had 191 yards before contact in the contest, their second most in a game since ESPN began tracking yards after contact in 2009.
So the good news is the Giants have Barkley back playing at a high level, as long as he stays healthy. The bad news is they now have to figure out where else they are going to get offense. Aside from Shepard’s 65-yard touchdown reception on a blown coverage in the third quarter, New York struggled to find other playmakers.
Wide receiver Kenny Golladay (two catches on two targets for 22 yards) was generally a non-factor. Rookie receiver Wan’Dale Robinson left in the second quarter with a knee injury and is considered day to day. And the enigma remains around last year’s first-round pick Kadarius Toney. He played just seven snaps and was clearly behind Richie James on the depth chart despite being healthy following a spring/summer on the sidelines.
“Kadarius is working his way back. … I’ve mentioned this before a couple of weeks ago with our receiver position: It’s a competitive situation. And they’ll be evaluated on a week-to-week basis,” Daboll said. “So, relative to inactives or play time or amount of plays, everybody’s got to earn their role. One week it might be a whole game; one week it might be less. But Kadarius has done a good job of learning our stuff. I have no concerns about him knowing our information.”
It may be Toney or could be someone else. But the Giants are going to need others to contribute if this offense is going to reach its full potential. It will be interesting to see if Daboll tries to incorporate Toney more into the game plan this week, because it doesn’t appear as though they’re going to feed Golladay volume regardless of how much he gets paid.
In the meantime, at least the Giants have something to lean on with Barkley being back to a version of his old self. And another chance for a big game is on deck. This Sunday, New York will get the Carolina Panthers, who allowed 5.6 yards per carry to the Cleveland Browns in their opener.
As Daboll added at the end of an answer following Sunday’s game: “I’m glad 26 is on our team!”
At least this version of No. 26.