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Operation: Stop Saquon Barkley

The rookie running back has been a force on the ground and through the air this season

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New York Giants v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

We’ve discussed the 49ers defensive improvements week over week. Each week they’ve met the challenge for the most part. There’s been some obvious lapses in crunch time, but all in all we see a unit playing together and growing. Versus the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and Kirk Cousins the defense stood tall. While the outcome of those games didn’t fall in our favor, there were some positives to take away.

This week they face another challenge in rookie running back Saquon Barkley. Regardless of the Giants overall performance, Barkley is having an outstanding season. Currently he’s averaging a respectable 4.7 yards per carry, and 64.9 yards rushing per game behind one of the leagues worst offensive lines. PFF has them ranked 27th. Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith will be the matchup with Barkley in the passing game, where he’s even more dangerous. He’s got 71 targets this season and gaining an average of 8.7 yards a reception ( Fooch also brought a great stat to my attention, Football Outsiders ranks Barkley seventh in the NFL among pass catching backs, while our defense ranks 14th in defending running backs in the passing game.

Kyle Shanahan was quoted in his Thursday presser as saying,

“Yeah, it’s evident that he is as hard of a guy to tackle as I’ve seen so, whether that’s handing the ball off to him or throwing it to him, if that guy has the ball in his hands in space there’s not many people in the world who can get him down very consistently. You’ve got to get him out of space and you need 11 guys swarming to him.”

This will be the key to the 49ers success on Monday night. In watching the tape Barkley makes the first guy miss a lot, it’s like clock work. He’s just got that wiggle that not many runners have. Last week, in my defensive piece, I touched on the improvement by the defense when it came to swarming to the ball. They’re going to need to continue to build on that trend. Let’s get into the film.

Our first 3 clips come from Week 2 vs. the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants do a good job of creating deliberate swing passes for Barkley, but he’s also often times just a check down and he makes something out of nothing. Watch the first tackler in each clip

Swing pass left.

Swing pass Right

Flat route during the blitz. Robert Saleh will need a solid coverage plan when he brings pressure.

Week 5 vs. the Carolina Panthers Barkley had four catches for two touchdowns. Here’s one of those touchdowns from the red zone. The Panthers try a zone blitz concept, something we’ve seen Saleh use. They blitz the linebackers and try to cover Barkley with a defensive end. Barkley is by his man within a few steps, and then jumps into the end zone from about five yards out.

It’s important that we get bodies to the ball. While Barkley can consistently move the chains with these check downs and swing passes, when given space and blockers he can turn a simple screen into a big play. Against Philadelphia in Week 6 he went off. Count the broken tackles on this highlight.

Jimmie Ward has been great at free safety in my opinion. He will be vital in keeping big plays from happening. Keeping the ball in front of him and taking accurate angles will give the defense a chance to get off the field and limit scoring plays. In our next big play clip, both Eagles safeties are caught sleeping on the play, before they can even open their stride Barkley is gone.

In our final clip, Barkley does his best Barry Sanders impression. Again, the 49ers game plan this week should be all defenders to the ball. No loafing, no jogging, no “I thought you had him.” In space Barkley simply will not go down one on one.

The 49ers have the personnel to compete. The Giants offense is more talented than their record lets on, but in the words of Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.” Monday night will be a matchup two teams looking to meet their potential and overcome.

Defensively, I’d consider marking Barkley early and force Eli Manning to win throwing the ball down the field. Short zones, and spying Barkley would be an effective plan. We have to trust Sherman to contain OBJ, varying help over the top. The rest of the defense needs to be keyed on Barkley in the flats. Pressure with the front four will have to get home. If we have to start to blitz and bring more bodies, that’s one less tackler, one less cover person in space. We will become susceptible to screens and draws, which is all the Giants want to do. If we can rattle Eli early, he will start to play just like Derek Carr last week, jittery and unconfident. Go Niners!