Giants’ speed infusion could be Saquon Barkley game-changer

If he could’ve heard the words over the piercing noise in the Superdome, Saquon Barkley probably would’ve broken his focus to smile.

After John Ross caught a 52-yard touchdown pass last week, the wide receiver noticed Saints defensive backs telling each other to “get back” every time he checked into the huddle. It was a tip of the cap to Ross’ reputation as the fastest man in the NFL and a reminder to safeties that cheating up toward the line of scrimmage to help close off Barkley’s rushing lanes could have catastrophic consequences.

Just like that, the Giants’ offense went from two years of low-scoring toxicity to containing a pick-your-poison element that should be most beneficial to Barkley, beginning Sunday against the Cowboys and for as long as Ross and elusive rookie Kadarius Toney remain heavily involved.

“If you’ve got speed that can take the top off, they’ve got to decide on how they want to cover you,” head coach Joe Judge said. “Does it help you as far as lightening up the box? It can. Some teams will just turn around and tell their corners, ‘Have a nice day and we’re going to load the box anyway,’ so we’ll see how they approach it.”

The Giants stumbled upon a solution to defenses keying on Barkley because starting receivers Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton were out last week with hamstring injuries. What the Giants are losing in consistency without Slayton and Shepard again this week, they are gaining in speed.

Saquon Barkley has a little more breathing room thanks to speedy threats Kadarius Toney and John Ross.
AP Photo

“Kadarius and John have proved they can be effective and make big plays down the field,” offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. “That certainly gets the defense’s attention. That opens up opportunities for other people.”

Toney turned a third-and-17 into a first down just by making tacklers look foolish.

“If he goes left, I’ve got to go right,” Toney said. “It’s just kind of like playing freeze tag.”

Barkley averaged five yards per carry as a rookie when the threat of an Odell Beckham Jr. deep ball scared defensive play-callers. Since Beckham was traded before the 2019 season and opponents began to feel more comfortable sneaking extra defenders into the box, Barkley’s average is 4.2 yards per carry, including 3.1 over his last six games and 3.6 in four games this season after returning from a torn ACL.

Kadarius Toney #89 of the New York Giants runs the ball
Kadarius Toney has added a new dimension to the Giants’ offsense.
Getty Images

Using quarterback Daniel Jones on run-pass options was one chess move to combat stacked boxes. Signing Kenny Golladay to win jump balls as a No. 1 receiver was another. Perimeter speed is more to the point.

“You could see how defenses will attack the run game, especially in the RPO, but that’s what football is for,” Barkley said. “You’ve got to be a team that can do it all.”

Barkley carried a season-high eight times for 30 yards against a box stacked with eight or more defenders last week, according to Pro Football Focus. The Saints paid the price by allowing eight plays of 20 yards or more (four in the fourth quarter and overtime) and 402 passing yards.

“I think [speed] is something that’s hard to coach against,” Ross said. “Once you utilize it, it’s something you have to really hone in on. I think what me and Kadarius can do opens up a lot of things.”

If future opponents overcompensate by dropping back to guard the deep ball, Barkley should finally be able to run through or shake a linebacker in space without getting gang-tackled.

“We’re showing that we can make plays in the pass game and overall. That’s going to help the run game,” Barkley said. “We’ve just got to keep sticking to it and keep working on it and every week it’s going to improve.”

Shepard — who had a 37-yard catch-and-run touchdown in Week 1 — and Slayton — who had a 33-yard go-route touchdown in Week 2 — are Jones’ time-tested favorite playmakers. They both will resume big roles when healthy.

New York Giants wide receiver John Ross (12) makes a run at practice
The Giants can’t afford to lose John Ross to the bench.
Corey Sipkin

But the coaching staff must find a way not to let Ross and Toney disappear to the bench like the disposable No. 4 and No. 5 receivers of years past, because Shepard, Slayton and Golladay all average fewer than three yards of separation on routes, per NextGenStats.

“It makes a big difference when you have guys who can be fast like that, run sudden and make guys miss,” receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. “It was a spark offensively, for sure.”

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