TAMPA — When the Bucs returned from a long weekend following their 20-14 road division win at Carolina last Thursday, it didn’t take much time for coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to turn the page and get their players’ attention.
In the team auditorium, the coaches put on a cut-up of Giants second-year running back Saquon Barkley’s best runs, emphasizing to their team that he’s the player the Bucs have to contain Sunday when Tampa Bay faced the New York Giants at Raymond James Stadium.
“It’s like a video game,” Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves said of watching Barkley run. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen, straight up. He’s special.”
Last week against Carolina, the Bucs limited Panthers' all-around back Christian McCaffrey to just 53 total yards, including 37 rushing yards, which was McCaffrey's lowest total in a game he's received at lease 10 carries.
As impressive as the Bucs performed in containing McCaffrey, Arians said Barkley offers a much bigger challenge.
“They’re on different planets,” Arians said. "Saquon’s bigger, stronger, faster. He’s got more 50-yard runs than anybody I’ve seen in a long time. ... He’s hard to bring down. He doesn’t run over many people – he runs around them and runs past them. The size and the speed combination are extremely rare.
“Todd showed about 20 clips today in the meeting,” Arians added. “You take a bad angle, it’s a touchdown. ... You’ve got to gang tackle. It’s got to take everybody getting to the ball and [having] gap integrity – you can’t try to do too much. If you try to do more than your job, you’re going to open up a gigantic hole and he’s going to find it. Stay in your gap [and] get everybody to the ball. Our defensive backs are going to have to tackle really well.”
Through two weeks, Barkley is second in the league in rushing — his 227 yards trail only the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook’s 265 — but more importantly, Barkley’s 7.8 yards per carry is the best in the NFL.
“His vision,” Hargreaves said when asked what stands out about Barkley. “You turn the film on and you’re like, OK, he’s bottled up. He’s not bottled up. OK he’s bottled up, it’s a touchdown. It’s ridiculous. It’s impressive. It’s fun to watch honestly. I respect it, I love to watch him play, but not this Sunday. We’ve got to stop him, we’ve got to find a way to slow him down.”
Through two games, the Bucs run defense ranks sixth in the NFL, allowing just 68.5 yards a game. Barkley posted 100-yard rushing games in each of his first two games against a pair of stout rush defenses in Dallas and Buffalo, but the Giants lost both games.
"Saquon is an elite back," defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh said. "That's one of the reasons he was a top draft pick. It's going to be a big challenge for us. Week in and week out, we've got to stop the run. That's the most important, and we have to get to the passer."
Last year, Barkley ran for 142 yards — his second-highest rushing total of the season — and two touchdowns in a 38-35 Bucs loss in The Meadowlands.
And Arians’ assessment of Barkley’s big-play ability is accurate. Barkley had seven rushing gains of 50 yards or more last season as a rookie. No other player had more than three (Isaiah Crowell).
"it's not that he bulldozes guys," said Bucs linebacker Jack Cichy, who played against Barkley in the Big Ten when Barkley was at Penn State and Cichy at Wisconsin. "But if you take the wrong angle, he can make you pay in the worst way. It's really got to be a disciplined game for us and we'rwe going to have to really be on top of everything, from angles to run fits to just about everything."
“He’s a strong runner,” said Bucs outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who had three sacks last week and was the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. “He doesn’t change direction that much. He picks which way he’s going and shoots up 100 mph. That’s why he’s always outrunning guys. But it’s going to be a challenge for us, but we all like challenges. We want to go against the best guys in the league in order to be the best guys. So we’re ready for the challenge and ready to accept it.”