Giant phenomenon: Saquon Barkley could give the Lions fits
Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have a 233-pound problem on his way to town and the team hasn't given any reasons to believe they'll have a solution when he gets here.
Among the layered issues the Lions have struggled with on defense this year, the most glaring might be the unit's ability to stop the run. Opponents are moving the ball on the ground with both volume and efficiency.
Last week, the Minnesota Vikings lit up the Ford Field scoreboard for 42 points, in large part due to running back Dalvin Cook's effectiveness. The bruising rusher shrugged off multiple tackles that afternoon, turning 25 carries into 142 yards. And that success opened up the Vikings' play-action passing game, fueling the scoring barrage.
Cook is having an outstanding season, working his way into early MVP consideration with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage through eight weeks, but not even he's as physically gifted as the next guy on Detroit's docket.
Up next is the NFL's most-physically gifted rusher, a generational superstar in the making, Saquon Barkley.
The No. 2 pick in the draft a year ago, Barkley earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie, racking up more than 2,000 total yards and 15 touchdowns on a terrible New York Giants team. Tipping the scales at more than 230 pounds, he's bigger than most backs, and with 4.4 speed, he's faster than the majority of his peers.
That's a frightening combination.
Lions nose tackle Damon Harrison knows that better than most. Long viewed as one of the premier run-stuffing defensive tackles in the NFL, he got an extended look at Barkley last year, practicing against him daily prior to being dealt to the Lions near the trade deadline.
"He's different, he's special," Harrison said. "He's big, fast and strong and can catch the ball out of the backfield. He can do just about anything on the football field, including lining up at receiver. And I'm pretty sure he can play quarterback, too. He's just one heck of an athlete."
The respect between the two is mutual.
"When he was here, he was someone that I was able to go to talk to for advice, how to handle yourself throughout your career," Barkley told reporters this week. "He’s been playing at a high level for a long time. So I’m excited to get to play against a guy like that."
Lions coach Matt Patricia said Barkley is a different challenge than Cook, primarily because of the different running styles and blocking schemes.
"One thing about Saquon is that he is just so patient toward the line of scrimmage," Patricia said. "This is different – downhill, shoulders square, be patient, find the hole, and then really the ball could kind of go anywhere from that standpoint. ...Barkley has unbelievable size and speed – the combination is really a problem, and he comes downhill with it, so it’s coming at you directly."
That downhill style will provide a stiff test for Harrison and company. Earlier this week, he pointed the finger at himself for the team's struggles against the run. And while he hasn't been playing to his standards, the issues definitely run deeper, starting with the unit's subpar tackling.
Defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni understands his group could be in for a long day if they can't get the issues with their fundamental skills corrected.
"We have to get the guy on the ground," Pasqualoni said. "We have to get multiple people there. There’re a lot of ways to tackle, but the gang tackle is the best tackle. When you have more than one person at the point of attack, you have your best shot. We have to get off blocks, have to get to the ball."
About the only thing that's slowed Barkley since joining the Giants has been an injury. After rushing for more than 100 yards in the team's first two games this season, he suffered a high ankle sprain. That sidelined him four games, prior to returning to the lineup last week.
In that game against the Arizona Cardinals, he managed 72 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, while briefly exiting the contest after re-aggravating the ankle. That has had a minimal impact on his practice routine this week. He practiced fully on both Thursday and Friday and is not listed on the team's injury report.
For the season, Barkley is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, tied for the best among backs with at least 50 attempts. The Lions, on the other hand, are bottom-five in the league, allowing 4.9 yards per carry.
Slowing Barkley will unquestionably be the key to the Lions' hopes of snapping their three-game losing streak and hanging around in the playoff picture.
If the Lions can limit Barkley as well as the Cardinals did a week ago, that would put the onus on rookie quarterback Daniel Jones to carry the Giants offense. And while Jones has exceeded many expectations in his first five starts, he's been prone to turnovers, throwing seven interceptions and loosing five fumbles.