Tiki Barber had a point. Saquon Barkley’s pass blocking was terrible. And it didn’t take a Ring of Honor running back to see that the rest of Barkley’s game last Monday night was pretty awful, too.
There was nothing he did right. He was no help to his teammates. And really, he was even a liability at times.
But don’t waste any time worrying about Barkley, who is the same, all-world running back he’s always been.
Instead, worry about the Giants’ offensive line.
That, as it has been for far too many years, was the root of all evil for the Giants on Opening Night and remains their biggest concern as they head into the rest of the season. They may be, as GM Dave Gettleman said, the “closest we’ve ever been” to finally fixing this mess of a unit, but that still seems to be miles and miles away. Their pass blocking was bad. Their run blocking was atrocious. The flashes of potential were few and far between.
It was supposed to be better after the Giants drafted left tackle Andrew Thomas fourth overall in April, because, as Gettleman said, “We want to fix this offensive line once and for all.” Veteran Cam Fleming figured to be a big improvement at right tackle. Guards Will Hernandez and Kevin Zeitler seemed primed to rebound from a shaky season. Only Nick Gates at center seemed like a weakness, since he had never played that position in an actual game.
And the truth is, there is more talent there than the Giants have had in years -- or at least that’s how it seems. That’s why the Giants are hopeful their false start was more about a lost offseason and a lack of chemistry, and that they’ll show some quick improvement starting in Chicago on Sunday afternoon.
“Obviously, it’s a new mix of players up front,” said Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. “We have to do a better job communicating. There are some young players who haven’t played very much before. They have to learn and grow from their experiences.”
Now, Barkley isn’t blameless for his disastrous, six-yard performance -- and he does need to be better, too. He’s certainly talented enough to make a few more defenders miss, even when they’re right in his face. But it’s also true that he didn’t have a chance on most of his 15 runs -- eight of which went for negative yardage. He was hit behind the line of scrimmage a startling 11 times, and more than a few of those came almost simultaneously with the moment quarterback Daniel Jones put the ball in his hands.
And if that’s not enough to prove how bad the line was, the advanced stats tell a frightening tale. Jones was pressured on 43 percent of drop backs, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Having neutralized Barkley, the Steelers teed off, blitzing 62 percent of the time. According to Pro Football Focus, they generated pressure in less than 2 ½ seconds a staggering 22 times -- eight more than any other team. And according to NextGen Stats, the dynamic trio of Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt were credited with 17 pressures.
At times, it was like the new-look line wasn’t even there.
“Well, obviously, they’re a very challenging defense -- a great defensive front,” Garrett said. “They came into the game with the idea of not letting us run the football based on what they played and how they played it. Having said that, we didn’t run the ball the way we needed to run it. Even when you’re playing against teams that are really concerned and focused on taking the run away, you have to find ways to do it.”
Yes they do, because Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin won’t be the last coach to completely commit to stopping Barkley, as he later admitted. It’s a safe bet that things won’t be different, or any easier, on Sunday against a Bears defense that features Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, who will challenge the Giants’ line as much as the Steelers did, if not more.
“They’re guys you have to come in, you can’t blink, you can’t fall asleep,” said Giants head coach Joe Judge. “They have high motors. They’re coming on every play. If you let down your guard for one second, that’s going to be a bad play for your offense.”
Barkley, of course, is talented enough to bounce back from such a terrible game and minimize those bad plays. No one doubts that, and certainly neither does he.
“It happened,” he said. “The game happened. I had 15 carries and six yards. Guess what? I came to work with a smile on my face, ready to work and get better."
Of course he’ll get better, but will his line improve, too? It’s hard to have confidence in that considering how bad that unit has been for most of the last decade. It was supposed to be “fixed” by now, but it clearly isn’t.
And if it isn’t fixed soon, Barkley and the Giants could be in for a very long year.