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The Giants should get creative with Saquon Barkley against the Eagles

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If the Giants finally unleash “Super Saiyan” Barkley, it could get ugly...

NFL: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

How will the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles game-plan against the New York Giants’ duo of Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley? After being blow-torched by the New Orleans Saints for 48 points and 363 points through the air, the Eagles face another set of dynamic play-makers. You’d be right to be concerned.

In their first meeting, the Eagles limited Beckham to just 6 catches and 44 yards. It was one of Beckham’s worst games against the Eagles. They achieved this by applying cone brackets and double teams on Beckham.

This extra attention forced Manning to look elsewhere which involved a plethora of check downs. Those check downs largely were fed to Barkley. On the day, he was targeted 12 times for 9 catches and 99 yards. He was the Giants leading receiver and it wasn’t close.

Most of Barkley’s yardage came on screens. In fact, 68 of his 99 yards came on 4 screens. Those screens were actually progress for the Giants’ unimaginative usage of Barkley to that point. Leading up to the game he was averaging only 1 manufactured touch per game. If he was going to be used as a check down only receiver, at least get some blockers in front and see what can happen, right?

That was step one in the Giants’ agonizingly long process of getting Barkley a wider variety of targets. The next step has yet to unfold with any meaningful volume, but the signs are there if you look really, really hard.

One route the Giants would be wise to amp up the frequency of is the angle route. Having a player with the athletic profile of Barkley, it would seem like a no-brainer that they would have figured this out long ago. That hasn’t been the case.

In their first seven games, Barkley managed one lonely target on an angle route. It was against the Eagles in Week 6. The pass would go incomplete due to it being run in the red zone which made it easier for the Eagles to converge on the route. In the last three weeks, the Giants have finally dabbled with giving Barkley more variety in his routes.

Why has it taken to long to get to this point? Barkley’s average depth of target is 0.5 yards. That’s not unusual for a running back, but it is unusual for a player with his ability to be a downfield threat.

As a junior at Penn State his role as a pass catcher expanded and he hauled in 54 receptions for 632 yards and 3 touchdowns. Among FBS running backs with at least 40 targets, his 1.90 yards per route ranked led the nation.

Notice the the snap above and where Barkley is lined up. While backs like Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, and even fullback Kyle Juszczyk run more than 15% of their routes from the slot, Barkley has yet to run a single route from that alignment.

That’s not to say he has to line up in the slot to get deeper shot passes. The Giants have ever-so-slightly sprinkled in wheel routes from the backfield, something of which the Eagles will have to be cognizant when formulating their game-plan. It hasn’t hit, yet, but that doesn’t mean the Giants should or will stop trying.

It should be obvious by now that the Giants don’t use Barkley in the same manner that the Saints use Kamara. The Saints use Kamara out wide, paired and/or stacked with Michael Thomas, in the slot, as a chess piece in motion and as a real threat from the backfield.

The Eagles were aware of this versatility and as such crafted a game-plan that doubled not only Thomas, but Kamara as well. It didn’t work, not even with Malcolm Jenkins covering him with help underneath.

Full disclosure: despite the one play above, the plan actually somewhat worked to limit Kamara (1-37-1) and Thomas (4-92-1) as much as could be expected. The problem was the plan failed everywhere else. Locked in one-on-one man coverage against the rest of the Saints options, the Eagles were summarily burned in each of those matchups.

For example, rookie Tre’Quan Smith had his breakout game by hauling in 10 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown. Even no-names like tight end Dan Arnold were roasting starters like Nigel Bradham. It was a mess.

This doesn’t bode well for the Eagles. Can we expect them to deploy their coverage schemes in a similar manner against the Giants? If so, can they put the clamps on Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram? Or will they utilize a plan more akin to their Week 6 success? Does that free up Barkley for an expanded role and a big day?

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz hasn’t had an easy job adjusting for all the injuries in the secondary, but it’s his job to get it right. Everything he’s tried to this point has failed to mask their obvious deficiencies and now even the stable, healthy starters like Malcolm Jenkins and Nigel Bradham have been getting tuned up. You could say that Schwartz is coaching like 4-6.

The Giants came out of the bye with a focus on increasing play-action to protect Eli Manning. It’s something that the Eagles have struggled to defend against. Typically those concepts involve extra blockers and the defenders have to respect their run responsibilities. This changes their rush angles. The Giants should continue with this plan of attack.

The Giants should also consider moving Barkley around and sending him on routes that get him working vertical instead of horizontal. Doing this early will reveal what Schwartz plans to do against Barkley in coverage beyond the line of scrimmage. If Schwartz’s answer is to double Beckham and Barkley like it was against the Saints, the Giants can then isolate other favorable matchups for Shepard and Engram.

For all of his faults, Manning has done better to deliver in the past few weeks. Granted, he’s done it against pass defenses that are turning opposing quarterbacks into combined MVP candidates, but it’s not like the Eagles are in the best shape right now.