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Barkley Will Provide Ultimate Test to Porous Packers Run Defense

Fully back from a torn ACL, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley will carry the NFL’s rushing lead into Sunday’s game in London against the Green Bay Packers.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers knew the New England Patriots were going to run the ball last week. Still, they couldn’t stop their running backs. On Sunday in London, they know the New York Giants are going to run the football. If the Packers can’t stop Saquon Barkley, it’s going to be an especially long trip back home.

The second pick of the 2018 draft, Barkley led the league with 2,028 yards from scrimmage as a rookie. He suffered a torn ACL in Week 2 in 2020 and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and 4.2 yards per touch in 2021. He’s back now, and the Packers will have their hands full. Barkley leads the NFL with 463 rushing yards. He gets the ball a lot – a league-high 84 carries – but he’s averaging a stellar 5.5 yards per carry.

Green Bay’s run defense has been putrid. And that’s being kind. While the Packers rank “only” 22nd with 4.97 yards allowed per carry, that is historically awful. According to Pro Football Reference, that’s the second-worst run defense in franchise history. The 1956 team, which was coached by Lisle Blackbourn and finished 4-8, yielded 5.12 yards per carry.

The 1956 team was terrible, one of 11 in a row that failed to post a winning record. The 2022 team, of course, is not terrible. It reached NFC Championship Games in 2019 and 2020 and has won 13 games each of the last three seasons. Kenny Clark is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. Rashan Gary is one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL. De’Vondre Campbell is an All-Pro inside linebacker. Defensive tackle Jarran Reed was signed in free agency and linebacker Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt were drafted in the first round.

There’s no reason why the defense should be bad at anything, let alone stopping the run.

“We have to be better, quite frankly, because we’re going up against the No. 1 rush offense in the National Football League,” coach Matt LaFleur said on Wednesday. “We know how explosive Saquon Barkley can be. It’s going to be a great challenge for our defense, just to consistently go out there and perform at a high level. We’re going to have to be on point. It’s going to take everybody.”

It starts on the perimeter, where Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson couldn’t have had it easier had they been given a presidential escort. On runs behind the tackles and to the perimeter, the Patriots rushed 17 times for 122 yards. While Rashan Gary had a strong game, both run and pass, the outside linebackers are going to need to step up vs. the Giants. At Wednesday’s practice, position coach Jason Rebrovich’s focus during individual drills was setting the edge. (See associated video.)

“We’ve got to execute better,” LaFleur said. “Certainly, that’s where run defense typically starts, by setting edges. You never want to give up a free edge. I know we can be better and we will be better.”

They’d better be. Of the three biggest rushing games in the league this season, the Giants have two. They rushed for 262 yards last week against Chicago. They enter Sunday ranked first in rushing (192.5 yards per game) and second in yards per carry (5.75). They are the only team in the NFL averaging more yards per rush than pass.

“It is really hard to run the ball in the NFL when it's a loaded box,” Barkley said after the game. “I can't really take credit for that. When there's a focal point of stopping the run and you see me go out there making some of those plays, it all starts with the offensive line. I got to give credit to them. We are going to continue to trust in them, lean on them and they're the engine of this team, especially the offense.”

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It's going to take everyone to slow Barkley. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry used the words “phenomenal” and “unbelievable” in discussing Barkley’s skill-set. Nobody would use those words to describe Green Bay’s run defense vs. the Patriots. However, Barry actually liked the way his group played the run for most of last week.

He’s not incorrect. During the Patriots’ lone possession in the third quarter and their first possession of the fourth quarter, they ran 10 times for 75 yards. During the final three drives, all of which ended in three-and-out punts, the Packers limited them to six rushes for 18 yards.

“I think we played dominant at times the other day for nine drives and then, specifically the end of that seventh drive and the eighth drive, they got after us a little bit,” Barry said. “We got everything cooled down. I think the biggest thing is consistency. We’re still looking for that complete game. There were 11 drives the other day and I think nine of them were pretty darn good. The opening drive they got three points. They punted seven times. We got a takeaway. But those two drives, we had some lapses. We turned it into much more of a dramatic game than it needed to be.”

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