Film & Stat Review: A closer look at Saquon Barkley's usage, and why Eli Manning didn't try to throw the ball on 3rd-and-1
As criticism continues to be hurled at head coach Pat Shurmur for his use—or is that lack of use?—of running back Saquon Barkley, I sought to get to the bottom of things by checking out Barkley’s touches per down versus the number of snaps he’s played in games.
Now while the 2019 sample only consists of one game, according to Sports Radar, Barkley played in 54 snaps in Sundays Week 1 loss to the Cowboys, but only had a chance at touching the ball 17 times or 31.4% of the snaps for which he was on the field, including 11 rushes and six pass targets, of which he caught four.
The breakdown by down was as follows:
- first down: 6 rushes, 3 pass targets;
- second down 4 rushes, 2 pass targets;
- third down: 1 rush, 1 pass target,
- fourth down: no rushes or pass targets
This is obviously a one-game sample, so let's go back to Barkley's rookie season to get a better idea of his usage on downs.
In 844 snaps, Barkley had 261 rushing attempts and 121 pass targets of which he caught 91—that’s 45.2% of the snaps in which he played to get his hands on the ball.
Breaking that down by down distribution, we have the following:
- first down: 157 rushes, 43 pass targets
- second down: 86 rushes, 46 pass targets
- third down: 17 rushes 32 pass targets,
- fourth down: 1 rushing attempt, no pass targets
The Giants seem to count on Barkley more on first down to set up a second-and-short situation, something he was able to do in 2018 when he averaged 4.7 yards per carry on first down.
Thus far this year, he’s averaged 4.33 yards per carry on first down.
The next question—and probably the most important one to ask—is what percentage constituted being "used enough"?
There is no set standard for each team, but we’ll look at the Giants from 2018 and in 2019 to try to determine if Barkley is being underutilized.
According to Pro Football Focus, Barkley was the third-most used Giants skill position player in Week 1, receiving 54 snaps (two more than receiving leader Evan Engram, but less than Sterling Shepard’s 67 and Cody Latimer’s 60).
In terms of receiving targets, Engram was the runaway leader with 11 targets, while Barkley’s six targets were one less target than Shepard and Latimer, each of whom had 7 targets.
Again, let’s break those numbers down further. Barkley was used in some capacity (run or pass) seven times up until 9:45 in the second quarter with the score 14-7 Dallas.
In the second half, the score now 21-7, he was used 10 times, starting with an 11-yard run starting at 12:19 in the third quarter.
What about last year?
Barkley (852) was the second-most used Giants skill player behind Sterling Shepard (934).
Similarly, Barkley's 114 targets in the passing game were five less than team leader Odell Beckham Jr.'s 119, while the running back's rushing attempts trumped all other Giants running backs.
“Obviously, we want more plays, more possessions,” Shurmur said when asked if there were more opportunities to get Barkley involved.
“It’s always good to keep him involved throughout, but the way the first half played out, it was only four possessions. …You don’t go into it thinking he isn’t going to touch the ball, that’s just how that first half played out.”
What was Eli Doing?
There seems to be some debate regarding whether quarterback Eli Manning, on the play in which he was penalized for intentional grounding on a 3-and-1, could have attempted a pass to tight end Eric Tomlinson, who was getting open over the middle.
Here, via NFL Game Pass, is the play in motion.
The following screen freeze shows the exact point where I believe Manning had a chance to throw the ball to Tomlinson.
Could Manning have thrown the ball to Tomlinson?
Eh, that's a tricky call there if you remember that Manning is a pure pocket passer who just doesn’t function as well on designed rollouts, which apparently this play was.
For Manning to get the ball to Tomlinson, he would have had to throw it over the Cowboys defender’s head, thereby not necessarily guaranteeing a reception.
Which brings me back to the original play and its design and how it was a bad fit for Manning.
Manning has always had the grace of a bull in a china shop when it comes to rolling out and resetting his feet and has shown that he doesn’t always make the best decisions when on the move.
To ask him to roll out on a critical down knowing that this isn’t his strong suit is coaching malpractice.
If all that’s not enough to convince you that this play was poorly designed, consider that an unblocked Leighton Vander Esch was coming right at Manning.
That Manning at least tried to get the ball to a receiver in desperation mode--and I’m still not sure how what he did was intentional grounding given that he was being hit as he threw the ball in the vicinity of Saquon Barkley, but the call stood--had about as much of a chance of succeeding as Manning trying to put the ball over the head of the other Cowboys defender (and potentially Tomlinson).