EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Saquon Barkley is just as adept at deflecting credit as he is at fending off opposing defensive players.
He was at it again today, less than 24 hours after completing another chapter in his storybook debut season. Barkley rushed for 170 yards – the second-highest total ever by a Giants rookie – including a 78-yard touchdown and a 52-yard run to set up another score in the team's rousing 40-16 rout of the Redskins.
The Giants have won four of five games since their bye week and now sit at 5-8. In the last five games, Barkley has averaged 121 rushing yards, and he has exceeded 100 yards in each of the last four. He has also caught 20 passes and scored a total of six touchdowns. It would seem that Barkley's brilliant play is at the forefront of the team's improved play.
But that's not how he sees it. That was evident today, when he was asked the biggest difference between the pre-bye and post-bye Giants and quickly cited the offensive line.
"O-linemen dominated games, especially up front, on both sides of the ball, to be honest," he said. "We've been executing in all three phases of the game, and that's what we weren't able to do in the first half, especially on the offensive side of the ball. We weren't executing. I told you this before, coach (Pat Shurmur) put up a whole film of plays that we missed and plays that we didn't make, and if we make those plays, we have a different record in the first half of the year. But you can't really worry about that anymore, you've got to put that in the past and focus on the remainder of the season and focus on the next game that we have up and continue to get better. I think the biggest thing would be the play by the offensive line. They've been tremendous giving Eli (Manning) time and making me look way better than I actually am."
While that last sentence might break new ground for modesty by a great player, Barkley's teammates and coaches are quick to credit his contributions to the team's second-half turnaround.
Manning has been the team's quarterback for 15 years, but he is happy to cede his premier status to a player 16 years his junior.
"He's a tremendous player, and I think we're starting to figure out that kind of this offense runs through him a little bit," Manning said after the Giants posted their highest point total in more than three years. "When we run the ball well, it just sets up everything else. It sets up the play action, it sets up so much.
"With Odell (Beckham, Jr.) being out (with a quad injury), probably got more man-to-man coverage than we've seen all season. They probably had an emphasis on slowing down Saquon, but offensive line did a great job, receivers did a great job blocking and he did a great job. Once he sees a little crease and gets an opening, he showed some speed today."
Shurmur has not publicly specified the tactical adjustments the Giants made during the first week of November. But subjecting opponents to a heavy dose of Barkley was clearly part of the plan. Not only is he essentially the running game, the attention paid to him by the defense has helped other players and other facets of the offense.
"I think it's all connected," Shurmur said. "I'm an old offensive lineman, and I understand the importance of blocking. I can remember when Lorenzo White and Andre Rison and Bobby McAllister were getting praise for doing what they do (at Michigan State), the five of us (linemen) 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. It's much easier as a playcaller also to call runs when you're gaining yards, and when you hand the ball to a runner that can score touchdowns. I thought his touchdown run, I've never seen him run that fast, even in college. I think there's data to tell us that was pretty fast. And everything plays off itself – it helps the play action, it helps the quarterback, his feet are clean because they think it's a run, so it all plays off itself. If we're playing right, then we need to be able to run the ball."
Shurmur maintained the connectivity theme when asked if it made sense to tailor the offense to Barkley's skills, no matter who the quarterback is.
"It all goes hand in hand," he said. "You just can't put Joe Schmo in at quarterback and think you're going to win games. You've got to have a guy that can play the position. But the best friend of a quarterback is really the running back, because he can take some pressure off of him. But the running back can't do it unless you block for him, so it's all connected. That's what we're seeing. I think from an offensive standpoint, we're seeing a much better connection, that's the way I would phrase it, since the bye – blocking, running, throwing, scoring points. I think in the last five weeks we've scored over 30 points a game, which in the first eight would have been tough to say, so it all goes hand in hand."
But the biggest hand goes to Barkley, even if he doesn't particularly want to accept it. The only reason he's even willing to consider it is because the recent rise in production has coincided with the improvement of the team. Barkley made several sensational plays in the first half of the season, but the Giants were 1-7.
"That's what it's all about," he said. "Coach says, 'Teams beat teams, players don't beat teams.' You can go for 400 yards and lose the game. Obviously, playing at a high level helps, but getting a win, in general, it just sits different in your stomach, no matter if you played well or you played bad. If you played bad, as a competitor, you want to do better, but at the end of the day, all that matters is about that win and the team coming together and getting a win. It's just different. When you win, the locker room is different, the train ride, the plane's different. It's an exciting feeling."
One the Giants will try to keep in the season's final three weeks.
*Injury update: Shurmur said Beckham – who on Saturday was scratched from the game due to a bruised quad – "came in today, felt a lot better than he did Friday and Saturday. He received some treatments over the weekend, so he feels better and we'll just see where that takes us." Shurmur said it's too early to say if Beckham will play Sunday at home against the Tennessee Titans.
Tight end Rhett Ellison sprained his ankle yesterday. "(He) feels better, we'll just see how the week progresses for him," Shurmur said.
Safety Curtis Riley, who scored the Giants' first touchdown on a nine-yard interception return, has a sprained wrist.
*Linebacker Alec Ogletree has a team-high five interceptions, including two he returned for touchdowns. Perhaps it's time to give him some plays on offense.
"We joked about that," Shurmur said. "Sure, I'd love for him to play offense." He laughed as he said it.
Asked if he has talked to the coaches about playing tight end, Ogletree said, "It's been in the conversation. Definitely has been in the works. Coach said he's thinking about doing it. So, we're going to see what we can do."
*The Giants terminated the practice squad contract of punter Brock Miller. A lefty, he was brought in last week to help the return specialists prepare for Washington's left-footed punter, Tress Way.
*The Giants and Toyota, in partnership with the United States Marines, will hold their annual Toys for Tots drive at MetLife Stadium when they host Tennessee on Sunday. Fans are encouraged to bring new, unwrapped toys to any of the Toyota collection vehicles located at each entrance of the stadium prior to the game. Uniformed Marine Corps Reserves and volunteers will be on hand to assist in collecting the donated gifts.
Modell's Sporting Goods has donated $2,500 worth of sports equipment to the cause and will hand out coupons to all fans who donate a toy. Coupons are redeemable at Modell's locations only. All gifts collected during the drive will be donated to Toys for Tots, the premier community action program of the United States Marines. Over the last 50 years, the Marines have distributed over 272,000,000 toys to children across the country during the holiday season.
Since the late 1970's, the Giants have participated in this program and have hosted an annual Toys for Tots drive, helping to bring the joy of Christmas to children across the tri-state area. Once again, the Giants ask their friends and fans to join the team as we assist our neighbors in need.