Healthy again, Saquon Barkley presents big challenge for Commanders’ defense

Healthy again, Barkley presents big challenge for Commanders originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

ASHBURN, Va. — After winning just four games in 2021, the New York Giants (7-4) are firmly in the playoff mix this year with meaningful December football ahead, beginning this Sunday against the Washington Commanders.

A lot can be attributed to the Giants’ impressive turnaround in 2022. First-year coach Brian Daboll has done an excellent job establishing a new culture. Quarterback Daniel Jones has significantly cut down on turnovers. Left tackle Andrew Thomas has emerged as a franchise cornerstone. New York’s defense has played well collectively, too, despite losing a handful of contributors to injuries.

Despite all of those positive changes surrounding the Giants, the reality is that the club would not be where they are right now without the re-emergence of running back Saquon Barkley. After two injury-riddled campaigns, Barkley has returned to elite form in 2022 and reminded the country why he’s one of the NFL’s most talented offensive players.

“Saquon is really a special football player,” Commanders head coach Ron Rivera said. “He really is. He is back 100 percent. I know last year he was getting back to form and you could see it. This year, he’s back. We have to account for him.”

Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in 2018, initially took the NFL by storm. The running back led the league in scrimmage yards as a rookie and followed up that campaign with another 1,000-yard season in 2019. However, just two games into the 2020 season, Barkley tore his ACL — an injury that still seemed to bother him at times throughout the 2021 season, even when he returned.

This year, though, Barkley has looked eerily similar to the player he was his first two professional seasons. Commanders cornerback Kendall Fuller believes a lot of that has to do with the running back having his first healthy offseason in two years.

“He’s just got that step back,” Fuller said. “A lot of times, guys go through certain injuries and it takes you a while to get that step back. Having a full offseason where you’re just able to focus on getting better instead of rehabbing, that helps a lot. You can see it in his play.”

Through 12 weeks of the 2022 season, Barkley is near the top of every major statistical rushing category. The fifth-year veteran is fourth in rushing yards (992) and is tied for the eighth-most rushing touchdowns with seven. Additionally, Barkley’s ripped off seven 20-plus-yard runs this season; only Cleveland Browns star Nick Chubb (11) has more.

Part of what makes Barkley such an effective player is his wide array of skills and versatility. The former Penn State star has the strength to run in between the tackles; Barkley’s 443 rushing yards after contact are the fourth-most in the NFL. But he also has the speed to run away from defenders in open space, evident by multiple 40-plus-yard rushes this year.

“I can’t tell you nothing that he can’t do,” Fuller said. “You’ve got a guy that can do everything. I think that’s self-explanatory.”

“Saquon, he’s doing his thing,” defensive tackle Daron Payne added.

The Giants have dealt with multiple injuries at wide receiver this year, too, which has led to Barkley being a big part of New York’s passing game. The running back currently leads the Giants with 35 receptions and is fourth in the team in receiving yards.

The 25-year-old is clearly New York’s best offensive weapon. Del Rio believes the Giants do an excellent job of putting the football in his hands in a variety of different ways.

“They’re doing a really good job of getting him touches,” Del Rio said. “Whether that be screens, check downs, routes he’s running or handing him the ball. [He’s a] really good player.”

For as skilled as Barkley is, the Commanders have already faced a handful of talented running backs already this season, including the likes of former Pro Bowlers Derrick Henry, Aaron Jones, Jonathan Taylor and Dalvin Cook. Remarkably, only one of them (Henry) has topped the 100-yard mark on the ground against the Commanders this season.

As a whole, Washington is allowing the eighth-fewest rushing yards per outing (108.4) this season — a number that was even lower before Atlanta ran for 167 yards in the rain against the Commanders last week.

Limiting Barkley’s effectiveness has been the No. 1 way opponents have found success against the Giants this season. Barkley has averaged 113.9 rushing yards in New York’s seven wins. In the Giants’ four losses, he’s managed just 48.8 rushing yards per contest.

That stark difference is not by coincidence. The Commanders understand how important slowing down Barkley is; the numbers speak for themselves.

In past years, Daniel Jones has elevated his play under center against the Commanders. But entering Sunday, Washington’s plan is to make Jones beat them, not Barkley.

“If we can stop their run game and make them one-dimensional, make them throw the ball so we can go out there and hunt up front, I feel like we’ll have a good chance to come out with a win,” Payne said.

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