The Falcons have faced a number of talented running backs through the first six weeks of the 2018 season, but they haven’t quite seen one like the one they’ll play on Monday night.
Not even halfway into his rookie season, Giants running back Saquon Barkley looks like one of the most talented weapons in the NFL and proven worthy of the No. 2 pick in April’s draft.
For some perspective, the Falcons are about to play a running back with the versatility of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey but the size and strength of James Conner.
Oh, and he’s faster than any of them.
Playing behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines, Barkley has 438 rushing yards and four touchdowns already this season. His average of 5.2 yards per carry is the best in the NFL among running backs with over 70 rushing attempts. Barkley isn’t just a dangerous runner out of the backfield, however; his 40 receptions and 373 receiving yards are both tops among all running backs in the league.
Atlanta has faced talented receiving backs, elusive runners and players who are dangerous in all facets of the game. Barkley, though, combines elements of all the players the Falcons have faced so far, and he is a major threat on Monday night.
Just see what Pro Football Focus had to say of Barkley through the first six weeks:
“The second overall pick currently ranks fifth among running backs in terms of overall grade following a four-game stretch where he graded out at 75.8 or better in three of them. Barkley has been as good as advertised with the ball in his hands, as his 104.8 elusive rating ranks second among all running backs (elusive rating measures a runner’s impact with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down). His 37 avoided tackles on all touches ranks second among running backs, and his average of 3.51 yards gained after contact per rush attempt ranks sixth.”
Barkley isn’t just good for a rookie, he’s one of the most elusive running backs in the league. The Falcons have played several elusive dual-threat backs thus far in McCaffrey, Kamara and Giovani Bernard, and Barkley has traits of all of them with greater size and strength.
What jumps out on the tape first, though, is his speed. If Barkley finds a seam in the defense, he can score from anywhere on the field.
“I do know about Barkley's speed,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “It was evident on tape for him coming out of Penn State, even when a good player had an angle on him … He has home-run speed and as any player when you can take a play that may end up being a 4-yarder to the house, that’s impressive.”
Barkley ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 4.4 seconds, which is faster than any back the Falcons have faced this season.
Despite some of their shortcomings on defense, the Falcons haven’t given up the home-run play to running backs this year. The longest run they’ve allowed to an opposing running back this season was a 30-yard gain by Conner, who ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash.
Although he’s much faster than Conner, Barkley does have similar strength and a comparable frame. Conner’s 30-yard gain was made possible because of broken tackles at the line of scrimmage, and Barkley has proven to be among the very best players in the NFL at breaking tackles.
This obviously presents a problem for the Falcons defense, which has missed the fifth-most tackles this season.
Like some of the other backs the Falcons have played this season – most notably, Kamara and McCaffrey – the Giants find a variety of ways to get Barkley the football.
As mentioned earlier, Barkley has statistically been the best receiving back in the NFL through the first six games. The Giants don’t run many slip screens with Barkley, but they do often throw him quick swing passes out of the backfield to get him in space with blockers in front.
In those situations, he’s purely in his element.
Like Kamara and McCaffrey, Barkley has also been lined up out wide in a traditional wide receiver spot at times this season. Most notably, he caught a 21-yard pass against the Houston Texans while lined up out wide to the right against linebacker Zac Cunningham.
The Panthers and Saints attacked the Falcons in much the same way with Kamara and McCaffrey, getting them the ball quickly in space and letting them do what they do best. Kamara caught 15 passes for 124 yards while McCaffrey had 14 receptions for 102 yards.
Barkley is more than capable of operating in the same way, but he’s shown more ability to consistently break tackles than either of the two players just mentioned. Conner was the back who was the toughest back for the Falcons to get on the ground, and he’s much more comparable to Barkley in that way.
In short, Falcons are going to need to be as fundamentally sound and sharp in their tackling as they’ve ever been this season.