FAB 3. With Jones At QB, Bucs Must Stop Barkley
Part of the reason why New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur feels comfortable about benching veteran Eli Manning and turning the offense over to rookie quarterback Daniel Jones in Week 3 is because Jones will be doing a lot of turning around and handing the ball off to Saquon Barkley.
Despite the Giants being 0-2, Barkley has already had two 100-yard games this year, including an 11-carry, 120-yard effort against Dallas in Week 1, and a 107-yard day with a touchdown against Buffalo in last week’s contest.
Barkley is coming off an impressive rookie season where he rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns on 261 carries (5.0), while catching 91 passes for 721 yards and four more TDs. The Penn State product had seven 100-yard rushing games as a last year, including 142 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s 38-35 win over Tampa Bay in New York in which he averaged 5.3 yards per carry and had two catches for 10 yards and another TD.
Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III was on injured reserve last year and didn’t get to play against Barkley, but watched in awe as the rookie ran roughshod over Tampa Bay’s defense.
“He’s amazing,” Hargreaves said. “I love watching him. If you’re a football fan you love watching him. He’s great. There’s not a way to not like that guy. We’ve got to find a way to slow him down.”
On Tuesday I asked Bucs head coach if the fact that his defense had success in limiting Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey to just 37 yards rushing gave Tampa Bay’s defense more confidence that it could contain another talented, multi-purpose back like Barkley. The answer was no.
“They’re on different planets,” Arians said. “Saquon’s bigger, stronger, faster. He’s got more 50-yard runs than anybody I’ve seen in a long time.
“He’s hard to bring down. He doesn’t run over many people – he runs around them and runs past them. The size and the speed combination are extremely rare.”
The 6-foot, 233-pound running back was the second overall pick for a reason a year ago prior to winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year and making his first Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro. Simply put, he’s a beast.
“You’ve got to gang tackle,” Arians said. “It’s got to take everybody getting to the ball and [having] gap integrity – you can’t try to do too much. If you try to do more than your job, you’re going to open up a gigantic hole and he’s going to find it. Stay in your gap [and] get everybody to the ball. Our defensive backs are going to have to tackle really well, and if a safety takes a bad angle – Todd [Bowles] showed about 20 clips today in the meeting – you take a bad angle, it’s a touchdown.”
Safety Jordan Whitehead knows that all too well. Whitehead had eight tackles in last year’s loss at New York, and has been trying to tackle Barkley for years, dating back to their days in college when Barkley played at Penn State and Whitehead was at rival Pittsburgh. In 2016, Whitehead had seven tackles and a fumble recovery in a 42-39 win over the Nittany Lions.
“From playing him in college I just know what kind of worker he is and what kind of player he is,” Whitehead said. “He brings it. He’s got every move in the book. If one guy misses a tackle, he’s gone. If you misfit you gap, he’s gone. If you take the wrong angle, he’s gone. He has a big run every game, so you’ve got to respect him.
“People say that he doesn’t run you over, but he runs through your arms. He’ll break at least one tackle per play, so we have to gang tackle. He’ll do a spin, he’ll jump, he’ll cut – we have to be ready for it all.”
With Jones, who was the sixth overall pick this year, getting his first NFL start in Tampa Bay, the Giants will want to help him navigate his first game by featuring Barkley extensively.
“He’s definitely one of the most explosive backs in the league,” Bucs defensive end Will Gholston said. “You turn on the film and you see him doing jump-cuts, hurdles, breaking tackles. He can do it all. He’s a patient, shifty back who can run you over if he wants to.”
The Bucs haven’t had much recent success against rookie quarterbacks, despite beating Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield and San Francisco’s Nick Mullens last year. Despite those wins, rookie QBs are a combined 12-3 against Tampa Bay dating back to 2011.
According to The Athletic’s Greg Auman, rookie quarterbacks have thrown a combined 19 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 14 games against Tampa Bay if you remove Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel’s four-interception game in 2013. Rookie quarterbacks in their first career start are 4-1 against the Bucs since 2007, with Tampa Bay losing to New York’s Geno Smith, St. Louis’ Austin Davis, Jacksonville’s Quinn Gray and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota.
The Bucs’ lone win versus a rookie QB in his first start came against Indianapolis’ Curtis Painter in 2011.
Jones, who played for David Cutcliffe at Duke, completed 85 percent of his passes and threw two touchdowns in the preseason. The Bucs will have to watch his ability to bootleg and scramble due to his athleticism and mobility.
“Changing quarterbacks doesn’t really change their offense. It does change some things – he is a heck of a lot more mobile than the other guy,” Arians said. “For us, we have to stop No. 26. It starts and ends with him.”