Giants have Saquon Barkley concerns after loss to Cowboys

There is more than one reason why the Giants are no longer running the ball effectively and this cannot be one of the reasons: Saquon Barkley is feeling the strain of the season and has lost his burst.

He insists this is not the case.

“My body feels like everyone’s does,’’ he said following the 28-20 Thanksgiving loss to the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. “The NFL is a grind.’’

That grind cannot slow Barkley’s legs from churning or else the Giants are in serious trouble. As it is, they have lost back-to-back games for the first time this season. Barkley two weeks ago was the NFL’s leading rusher, but the past two games – played in a 12-day span – were not productive for Barkley in any way, shape or form. He has 26 rushing attempts in losses to the Lions and Cowboys and managed to gain only 61 yards. That is a poor 2.3-yard average. This swoon comes after Barkley carried the ball a career-high 35 times in a victory over the Texans.  

“Yeah, we didn’t get a whole lot going,’’ coach Brian Daboll said. “I don’t know, we averaged three-and-a-half yards or something like that? I thought [offensive coordinator] Mike [Kafka] had a good plan coming out the way he did, getting Daniel [Jones] on the move a little bit and trying to loosen him up, but never really got anything going, not getting any explosives.’’

Saquon Barkley
Getty Images

The Giants need explosive plays from Barkley. Without them, there is too much of a burden put on Jones and the passing game, which is operating with a dearth of quality at the wide receiver position. Barkley is the star of the offense and he needs to shine. He was on the field for 47 of the 64 snaps on offense against the Cowboys and it is clear this coaching staff is not interested in sharing the load. Matt Breida had only two rushing attempts. Gary Brightwell, a special teams player, was dusted off with a season-high five rushing attempts.

There is no doubt all the upheaval on the offensive line – injuries forced three backups into starting roles against the Cowboys – has led to breakdowns up front. Opposing defenses now realize paying extra attention to Barkley is the way to go, because there are no targets on the outside to make anyone fear playing run-first against the Giants.  

“I thought we did pretty good,’’ Cowboys outside linebacker Micah Parsons said. “He might have had one, maybe two explosive runs. But, for the most part, contained him and made sure everything was short. They passed way more than we expected. I think we did a pretty good job for the way he’s been playing this year.’’

Barkley has 992 rushing yards this season and, unless something crazy goes down in the next game against the Commanders, he will surpass 1,000 rushing yards for the third time in his five-year career. He is trending down the past few weeks and it is fair to wonder if the bruised shoulder he has been dealing with is affecting him in some adverse way. It is also fair to wonder how badly the Giants will struggle on offense until Barkley gets back in his groove.

More that came out of the Giants’ loss to the Cowboys:

1. This was the most active game for Kayvon Thibodeaux. He buzzed around Dak Prescott for a season-high five quarterback hits, playing 73 percent of the snaps on defense (he came off the field briefly when he was cramping up). Sure, he missed what should have been a sack when he failed to bring Prescott to the turf, but this sort of activity bodes well for the stretch run for the No. 5 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

2. Daniel Jones ran the ball often (nine times) and effectively (79) yards as the Giants lost to the Cowboys 23-16 in Week 3. There was a feeling Jones would again use his legs in the rematch, but he did not. Jones ran the ball only three times for 14 yards.

“He had pass options, so he ended up throwing,’’ Daboll said. “He ran zone reads, boots. We just didn’t do enough.’’

Daniel Jones winds up to throw
Daniel Jones winds up to throw
Getty Images

3. No excuses, of course, but there is no doubt the Giants were severely undermanned in this game. How undermanned? With all the injuries littering the roster, they were forced to start seven players signed off the street or claimed off waivers this season. That is not ideal. The seven: Wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins, right tackle Tyre Phillips, safety Jason Pinnock, cornerback Nick McCloud, linebacker Jaylon Smith and left guard Jack Anderson. McCloud and Pinnock both played all 75 snaps on defense. Pinnock was the choice of the defensive staff ahead of rookie Dane Belton, who played only seven snaps.

4. Micah Parsons, the Cowboys’ stud pass rusher, got two second half sacks against left tackle Andrew Thomas and delighted in his success after the game, tweeting: “Heard he was the best!! I stayed on his side all game!!’’ Indeed, Parsons went at Thomas the entire game, but it is not as if this was a completely one-sided affair. The two sacks were the only two quarterback hits Parsons had on Daniel Jones, and Thomas did not miss a snap even though he was sick all week and clearly was not 100 percent. Thomas, an all-business youngster who takes full accountability for his performance, said he let the team down. He was too hard on himself. Parsons is a beast – he has 12 sacks this season – and he and Thomas figure to go at each other for years to come.

Micah Parsons
Micah Parsons
Getty Images

5. The Cowboys swept the two-game season series from the Giants and, examining those two games, there are reasons to believe the Cowboys need to clean up their act if they are to be considered a serious Super Bowl contender. They were called for 13 penalties for 86 yards.

“To win a game when you have two-to-one penalties on your opponent, that’s obviously not where we want to be,’’ Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think it speaks to our ability or our capability as a team. The penalties, particularly you had the holdings, on both sides of the ball, you just go back through it. The self-inflicted wounds we need to minimize, you obviously want to eliminate them.’’

The Cowboys were called for 11 penalties in their Week 3 victory over the Giants.

6. It is difficult to imagine where the Giants’ offense would be without Darius Slayton. Their passing game is suspect and Slayton is the only deep threat among the wide receivers. His 44-yard reception in the second quarter, leaping up and over cornerback Anthony Brown and reaching across the defender to make a leaping grab, set the Giants up at the Dallas 1-yard line, and Saquon Barkley scored two plays later.

Asked if this was the best catch of his NFL career, Slayton said, “I don’t know, I’m sure it’s up there.’’ He said he did not realize he was so close to the goal line when he came down with the ball. “Felt good, we were able to punch it in after that so it came with a touchdown,’’ Slayton said. “I told Saquon I’m padding his stats letting him get the one-yard touchdown rush.’’

7. The Giants did not get a sack on defense for the second consecutive game, the first time in more than five years this has happened. In four of the 11 games this season, the Giants have not registered a sack. This is growing into a problem.  

8. The emergency offensive line held up from an endurance standpoint, as all five starters played all 64 snaps. That Nick Gates, in his first start at center since the 2021 season opener – and his first start, period, since Week 2 last season – was able to start and finish the game without any breaks is significant, considering he is coming off a fractured leg that required seven surgeries to stabilize. 

In the final minute, Gates got into a tussle with Parsons after the Cowboys linebacker was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty for hitting Gates up in the chin/head area. Gates did not back down, showing the feisty side that the two previous Giants staffs appreciated.