How Saquon Barkley Affected The Steelers' Defensive Game Plan
The Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive game plan against the Giants on Monday is proof that running back Saquon Barkley can dictate a defense's priorities and open up opportunities for other players.
Now the Giants just need to find a way to take better advantage of those opportunities.
Pittsburgh's defense intended to contain Barkley by any means necessary, and it did everything it took to do so and then some.
The Steelers achieved that goal, holding Barkley to just six rushing yards on 15 carries (0.4 avg) in a 26-16 victory, but it wasn't a task they took for granted. According to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers compromised numbers in their secondary to keep Barkley contained.
"We had a commitment, and we weren't going to be baffled by that commitment," Tomlin said. "We thought [Barkley] was a catalyst for whatever they were going to do offensively.
"We put our secondary in harm's way some in an effort to do so, but it's a team game, and they embraced that challenge. We needed to stack the line of scrimmage, we needed to bring people like [cornerback] Mike Hilton and so forth, and we did. We did what we thought was necessary to minimize [Barkley's] impact on the game.
The Steelers' defensive strategy of crowding the line of scrimmage paid off in the Giants' backfield all night, as eight of Barkley's 15 runs went for negative yards. The strategy may have also possibly opened up more passing opportunities for Giants quarterback Daniel Jones.
The majority of the Giants' offense flowed through Jones on Monday night, as the second-year quarterback completed 26 of 41 passes for 279 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.
However, the Steelers' secondary was still able to hold up against a young Giants' passing attack in the debut of new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's system.
The Steelers' pressure up front also didn't leave their defensive backs having to cover opposing receivers for too long on most plays, as Jones was sacked three times and under duress regularly.
For Pittsburgh, the risk of leaving the Giants' wide receivers in one-on-one coverage didn't outweigh the risk of letting Barkley get into open space in one-on-one situations against defensive backs.
"[Barkley] really thrives in getting in those one-on-ones against DBs," said Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt. "And then we ran to the ball. We know Saquon is a heck of a back, and he has young legs, so you got to have 11 guys to ball.
"We always say, you can't dodge 11 bullets so we make sure that we all come to the party and tackle."
Running against any crowded front would have been difficult for Barkley. But the Steelers lineup of athletic and aggressive playmakers left no room for Barkley to break off for any of his signature big plays.
The Giants' offensive output in their first game under Garrett was ultimately underwhelming, as they were only able to put up 16 points.
However, that doesn't mean the Giants plan on changing their offensive approach any time soon. Giants head coach Joe Judge said that after the game, they would stay committed to getting Barkley going on the ground.
"We're going to stay aggressive with the run game," Judge said. "Saquon is a key part of our team. He’s going to be a difference-maker for this team."
The Giants can't afford to be a one-dimensional offense. Barkley will depend on the Giants passing game to balance out opposing defenses going forward, as tonight is evidence that he can be stopped against a crowded line of scrimmage.
Still, Jones might continue to get favorable matchups down the field as long as Barkley is in the backfield. Jones proved he can take advantage of those matchups on a number of his passes tonight but needs to be more consistent.
The Giants will need a reduction in Jones' poor decisions and improved pass protection by the offensive line to achieve that offensive balance and open avenues for Barkley moving forward.