Just a few days before Monday’s game against the Steelers, Saquon Barkley spoke about wanting to be an all-time great and an all-around back.
Instead, he wound up with one of the worst performances by someone at his position in the recent history of the NFL.
Barkley ran for just 6 yards on 15 carries, making him the sixth player since the NFL merger in 1970 to rush for fewer than 10 yards on 15 or more carries. Not that it was all his fault. According to ESPN Stats, Barkley was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 11 of those carries, and eight of them resulted in a loss of yardage.
For a player of Barkley’s caliber and potential, though, it was as distressing and disappointing a performance as anyone could have imagined.
"I have to do better," Barkley said. "I have to do better for the team. We have to find a way to get the running game going."
The Steelers made it clear all week that they were not going to allow Barkley to beat them.
"We had a commitment and we weren't going to be bashful about that commitment," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We thought that guy was a catalyst for whatever that they were going to do offensively. We put our secondary in harm’s way some in an effort to do so. It's a team game. They embraced that challenge. We needed to stack the line of scrimmage … We did what we thought was necessary to minimize his impact on the game."
Barkley seemed more upset by the loss than by his meager rushing totals.
"I’m not really too concerned about the stats," he said.
The two plays that likely will stick with him, though, came when he was not carrying the football. He dropped a pass early in the game, one that nearly popped up into the defense for an interception. Worse, he whiffed on a blitz by cornerback Mike Hilton to allow a third-quarter sack with the game still within reach. When Barkley talks about being an all-around back, those are the types of plays he wants to make.
Barkley did flash a few highlights. He caught a screen pass and took it 38 yards, leaping over Hilton at the end. He also caught a key pass on fourth-and-1 to keep a 19-play drive going in the third quarter (although it may say more about his night that the Giants chose to pass rather than run in that short-yardage situation).
It’s unlikely that Barkley’s season will remain as lackluster as this first night was. It’s also unlikely that future opponents will be any less devoted to stopping him than the Steelers were.
"Look, we’re going to stay aggressive with the run game," coach Joe Judge said. "Saquon is a key part of our team, he’s going to be a difference-maker in how successful this team is going to be, so we’re going to stay with him. We have a lot of confidence in him. I have a tremendous amount of confidence in our offensive line . . . We’re going to keep leaning on these guys."
And Barkley said he will keep running.
"I believe the running game is going to be a key part of our success," he said, "and I still believe in it."