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Sterling Shepard, game balls and the joy of blocking for Saquon Barkley

The rookie running back's breakaway ability makes his receivers and linemen want to do their job better. His long runs are also deeply satisfying to them.  

Giants running back Saquon Barkley directs his blockers

Giants running back Saquon Barkley directs his blockers against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on Dec. 9, 2018. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Rob Carr

When Sterling Shepard eventually lines up all of the game balls he’ll have collected by the end of his career, he’ll be able to look back at each and remember the big numbers he put up on those particular days. So far he’s got the two 11-catch days last year, the 167-yard performance from earlier this season and the touchdown he scored in his first NFL game against the Cowboys. They’ll tell the story of all the times he was on the field and felt like he could not be stopped.

And among them will sit one that just says two catches, 17 yards.

That’s the one he earned Sunday, not for anything he did with the football in his hands but for the plays he made as a blocker out in front of Saquon Barkley in the win over Washington.

Shepard threw two key blocks, one on each of Barkley’s long runs. The first was closer to the line of scrimmage, preventing safety D.J. Swearinger from obstructing the running back on a 78-yard touchdown. The other was in the open field on Josh Norman that helped Barkley add about a dozen yards to his 52-yard run.

“When he gets to the second level, it’s pretty much over with,” Shepard said. “There is appreciation for that …  When you have a guy like Saquon who can go 60, you appreciate guys like that.”

Barkley has spoken quite a bit about how much he owes to his blockers, be they offensive linemen or receivers down the field.

“They’re making me look way better than I actually am,” Barkley said.

The feeling from them is mutual.

Blocking for Barkley, they say, is almost a Zen-like experience.

“As an offensive lineman, it gives you peace,” guard Jamon Brown said. “If we’re able to give this guy a chance, he’s going to be able to capitalize on those opportunities. That’s really important.”

Brown talked about how Barkley “makes us right.” In other words, the linemen don’t have to be perfect. They are allowed to make mistakes, to miss blocks. Sometimes. But they know they have a safety net in Barkley.

“He can make a guy miss and that play can spring open for a big gain and from that point we can ignite and run off that momentum,” Brown said. “From that, we’re building. We’re going in the right direction. That gives you a calming type of feel … There’s nothing like missing a block and then having negative yards. But when you don’t block it well and we gain 6 yards, now it’s like, OK, that’s not demoralizing. We can collect ourselves, and that’s when touchdowns happen.”

That’s what happened on Barkley’s 51-yard scoring run against the Eagles. Brown said the play was only designed to pick up a tough 5 or 6 yards. “It wasn’t really built to pop out for 50-plus,” he said. “But that’s him.”

There are only a few running backs in the NFL who can do that. Brown has blocked for two of them. He spent the past three seasons with the Rams opening holes for Todd Gurley.

“Any running back in the NFL is obviously a good running back, but then you have those next-tier guys who you call greats,” Brown said. “Todd, Saquon, those guys are, in my opinion, the great backs. They can take a designed 5-yard play and turn it into a 65-yard play. And that’s just on the guy right there. Guys like Saquon will take that and make it into a 70-yarder. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ ”

As the Giants’ offense becomes more and more Saquon-centric, those efforts become more and more important. That’s why Pat Shurmur keeps saying the key to the offensive surge of late starts up front.

“I’m an old offensive lineman, and I understand the importance of blocking,” Shurmur said. “I can remember when Lorenzo White and Andre Rison and Bobby McAllister were getting praise for doing what they do [at Michigan State], and the five of us sat in the corner, drank one more beer, and were just happy about the fact that we were winning games. It starts up front, and I think our guys are doing a better job blocking, which helps the run game.”

And that’s why Shepard was given a souvenir from a game in which he caught just two passes, not to mention respect from guys who block on every single play.

“I give him a ton of credit for his toughness and his tenacity,” tackle Nate Solder said of Shepard. “We love it. He’s been doing it all year. He’s great at it.”

Said Shepard: “That will be a special ball for me.”

Even though he earned it by never even touching it.

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