Giants Unit Review: Does Anyone Really Know What They Have at Running Back?
The question posed by the headline might sound like a headscratcher, but the reason why it’s not is two-fold.
First, we can all probably agree that in the two years Saquon Barkley has been with the Giants, his skill set hasn’t fully been utilized to the best of its ability.
Second, we can also probably agree that the run blocking by the offensive line should have been a lot better than it was in 2019.
Assuming that we all do agree on these two points, that brings us back to the question of whether the Giants know what they have at the running back position.
Let’s start with Saquon Barkley, whose sophomore NFL season was partially derailed by a high ankle sprain suffered in Week 3 that cost him three games (and yet he still managed to record—just barely at that—another 1,000-yard rushing season).
Barkley won’t admit to it, but to the casual observer, his injury was a problem, at least until the bye week when the time off did him wonders.
And it’s probably fair to wonder if the ankle injury affected his pass blocking, which seemed to fall off a cliff from his rookie season.
Injury aside, his most significant issue was the design of the running game combined with the inconsistent run blocking up front. Barkley always seemed at his best running to the outside, yet the coaches continued to insist on pounding the ball up the middle.
One can’t help but wonder what Barkley’s stats might have been if he had been used more creatively and moved around in different formations to where he was isolated against a linebacker, like what the media saw during the OTAs.
It’s these reasons that the Giants' ground game is somewhat of an incomplete picture thanks to the previous coaching staff’s insistence on trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. Here’s hoping that the next offensive coordinator, whoever he might be, rectifies this.
The other notable occurrence at this position was the mysterious disappearance of Wayne Gallman from the offense. Gallman recorded 27 of his 29 touches in the first five weeks of the season before a concussion derailed him for Week 6.
He returned to action the same week as Barkley but didn’t get a single rushing attempt in Weeks 7-9, and only touched the ball twice more through Week 12 before finding himself as a weekly healthy scratch.
The only reason that makes any sense as to why this was is that Gallman averaged 1.5 yards per rushing attempt between Weeks 10-12 after averaging 3.96 yards per attempt earlier in the year. In contrast, Buck Allen, who siphoned away Gallman’s snaps, averaged 3.6 yards per carry.
Craig Johnson, the running backs coach under Pat Shurmur, hinted that Allen overtook Gallman on the depth chart in practice.
“He’s done a good job on the practice field. I think he’s shown some good physical running, he’s very good in pass protection, and he’s caught the ball well,” Johnson said of Allen last month.
“Since he’s shown so much, we want to give him a look, give him an opportunity to get out there and play and see what he can do. He’s done well with what he’s had so far.”
It also probably didn’t help Gallman that he wasn’t much of a special teams player, participating in 17 snaps all season to Allen’s 168.
Where Do They Go From Here?
No one is going to dispute that Barkley is the Giants’ best player on offense, but with that said, people need to be careful of putting all the eggs in Barkley’s basket to win games.
In his two seasons, Barkley has recorded 11 100-yard rushing games, including four in 2019. Of the four he had this past season, the Giants lost two by two or more scores, a reminder that it’s not about one player and that there has to be a strong supporting cast.
With that said, Barkley is undoubtedly a dynamic game-changer. However, he would strongly benefit from having a solid No. 2 behind him to take some of the load, whether that’s Gallman, Hilliman, Allen, or someone not yet on the roster.
Per Pro Football Focus, Barkley has played in 1,581 snaps in his two seasons and has either touched or been targeted to touch the ball 700 times (44.2%).
If the Giants want to have a balanced offense that includes a solid running game as led by Barkley, they need to work him smarter, not harder.
This includes getting him out in space to lessen the pounding he has taken by being sent up the middle behind an offensive line that just hasn’t been successful in getting a consistent push.
This also includes breaking a set rotation to where Barkley isn’t coming out of the game on every third series, regardless of where the Giants have the ball.
The Bottom Line
Barkley has always been at his best as an outsize zone runner, so whoever the new offensive coordinator is, he needs to start with designing more runs there.
Of Barkley’s 1,003 rushing yards, 610 came on outside runs as did all six of his touchdowns. And per NFL Savant, 37 of his rushing attempts on first downs went behind center where an argument could be made there was very little if any consistent push in that direction.
It would also behoove the Giants to move Barkley around more to create mismatches. According to Pro Football Focus, Barkley lined up in the slot just ten times and was split out wide only 29 times. Those two numbers need to increase significantly, especially if they want to tap into his full skill set.
Another suggested change? If Barkley is going in between the guards, have him run behind a fullback. Penny was on the field as a fullback on just 115 snaps, not many of them coming with Barkley behind him in critical short-yardage situations. If this team is going to carry a fullback, then use him to help upfront.