Last Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense had to contend with one of the NFL's elder statesmen among running backs, the rejuvenated Adrian Peterson of the Washington Redskins. This weekend, they'll square off against the league's most exciting newcomer, the New York Giants' Saquon Barkley. Buccaneers Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy calls Barkley a "generational guy," and indeed Barkley could end up being to a new NFL generation what Peterson has been to the last one.
What he is in the most immediate sense, from the Buccaneers' point of view, is a serious challenge who can't be taken lightly despite his relative lack of NFL experience. The Bucs fared relatively well against Peterson, holding him to 68 yards and 3.6 yards per carry, with almost all of that damage coming in the fourth quarter when Washington was protecting a two-score lead. Now they'll try to limit a 21-year-old star-in-waiting whose game has been compared to another generational talent, Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
McCoy enthused about Barkley at length on Thursday, three days before the Buccaneers will head over to MetLife Stadium to take on the Giants in a Week 11 contest. He recounted one play he had seen in which the rookie back was seemingly "tackled" (McCoy used air quotes with that word) only to spring up from a near squad to continue going.
"This dude, man, he's incredible," said McCoy. "Any word – incredible, amazing, spectacular – all those words, that's him. I don't think he's even gotten close to scratching the surface of being a running back. He's just balling right now. When he learns how to be a true running back, it's going to get ugly."
McCoy agreed to the comparisons with Sanders, though they seem more accurate when describing Barkley's style rather than his size. The Giants' rookie is three inches taller and about 30 pounds heavier than Sanders was in his playing days, but he has the same sort of video-game moves and the ability to turn a nothing play into something spectacular. Barkley already has four touchdowns this year of 50 or more yards, two each in the running and passing attacks.
[He's] really, really impressive," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "For a guy that’s 235 pounds, his combination of speed, elusiveness, ball skills, yards after contact – very impressive. He’s come right into the league and really shown what he can do."
And, like Sanders, Barkley tends to be a bit boom-or-bust at times. He tries so hard to turn every run into a big one that he takes a higher-than-expected number of tackles for loss. Barkley has been stopped for a loss 19 times among his 131 carries this year; only Peterson (27) and Dion Lewis (20) have more. Of course, one "boom" play can erase multiple "busts," so it's the breakaways and second-effort gains that the Buccaneers must guard against.
San Francisco's defense did a fine job of that on Monday night, though the Giants won the game, 27-23. Barkley had 20 carries for 67 yards, only one of went for double digits, an 18-yard scamper in the first quarter. He was stopped for a loss three times and on 11 other occasions got between zero and three yards. (Barkley also had a 23-yard reception and 33 yards in total through the air, and that has been a huge part of his game as a rookie, too.) McCoy didn't see any cheat code the Buccaneers could steal from the 49ers' defensive performance, though.
"He's one of those guys that you kind of just do your game plan and it's got to be 11 to the football," said the Buc defender. "You don't watch one game and [say], 'Oh yeah, they figured it out.' Nobody has figured it out. I don't think anybody will figure it out – he's one of those guys, generational guys. We've just got to attack him and make sure we get him on the ground. We can't trust that one person is going to get him down."
The Buccaneers went into last week's game believing that their number-one task on defense was to slow down Peterson, who had become the focal point of the Washington offense thanks in part to injuries to a number of pass-catchers. The Bucs didn't get the win thanks to persistent red zone troubles on offense, but they did allow their season lows in both yards (305) and points (16).
They will surely have a similar assessment of this week's game, because Barkley is arguably even more vital to New York's offense than Peterson was to the Redskins' attack. Barkley has 586 rushing yards and 530 receiving yards for a total of 1,116 yards from scrimmage through his first name games. That accounts for 36.0% of New York's team total of 3,103 net yards in 2018. Only the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott (37.1%) and the Cardinals' David Johnson (36.9%) have accounted for a higher share of their teams' overall offensive output.
"I think that this guy, number one, is an exceptional talent," said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "You see that in terms of what he’s done in the run game, what he’s done in the pass game and what he’s meant to their offense. I mean, the guy’s commanding a sizable amount of their production."
Barkley hit 100 yards from scrimmage on the nose on Monday in San Francisco, and that was close to his low-water mark for the season. He's yet to be contained for fewer than 94 yards from scrimmage in a game in his young career. The Buccaneers likely won't completely contain Barkley – much as they almost never did against Sanders when they shared a division with the Lions for many years – but they want to keep the damage to a minimum and force the Giants to look elsewhere for their big plays. As Duffner explains, that's a matter of being disciplined on defense; the alternative could be painful.
"I think that [the 49ers] were able to, again, stay proper in terms of gaps and proper in terms of coverage and not let this guy get wide open or in a space where he can really make you miss," he said. "That’s going to be our objective too, is to be proper and disciplined in run fits and also in terms of coverage where you don’t give this guy a lot of space because he can hurt you."