Imagine you’re an NFL defensive coordinator preparing for a big third down play. You know that the offense is most likely looking to get the ball in the hands of one of two players.
The first is the running back. However, this isn’t you average NFL running back, who is already more than capable of picking up the yards. This guy can hurt you with his All-Pro vision and agility. Or, he can blow buy you with the speed of an Olympic sprinter. Or, he can plow right past you with his muscles that compare to those of a bodybuilder.
The second is a wide receiver lined up on the outside. He too has the speed to blow past a cornerback and beat you deep. He could also catch a quick slant or screen and juke his way to the end zone. Even if you have perfect coverage on him, there’s still chance he goes up and makes an unbelievable catch
So, how do you actually stop them?
That’s the challenge the Washington Redskins defense is tasked with as it prepares for its Week 8 matchup against the New York Giants and playmakers Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr.
Starting with Barkley, the Redskins defense understands they’ll have their hands full in its first meeting with the Giants' newest weapon.
“He’s a talented back also in this league, one of the most talented backs in this league,” linebacker Preston Smith said. “He plays hard and physical and he gets downhill quick and he’s also elusive and he’s hard to bring down.”
Smith’s description of Barkley is spot on, and something known for some time now. Even before he joined the Giants, the second overall pick in 2018 had already been on the radars of many thanks to a college career filled with highlight reel plays and an NFL Combine performance that featured a 4.40 40-yard dash, 29 reps on the bench press and a 41.0 inch vertical jump. One of those to take notice of Barkley was Redskins running back Adrian Peterson.
“I can’t remember which game. Obviously just the anticipation, the hype, and the talk and stuff, and watching him in college,” Peterson said about when he first spotted Barkley’s talents. “So for me it’s like, I want to see what he’s going to do once he gets into the NFL. I can’t even remember when, but I think his first game, watching him, I was like, ‘Okay this kid’s got something.’ Let me see if, just keep watching, keep watching. Each time I see I’m just like, ‘Okay, this guy can be really, really good.’”
Peterson had plenty of compliments for Barkley, talking about the running back’s patience, balance, agility and overall flow of his game, even comparing the Penn State product to Los Angeles Rams’ starter Todd Gurley III.
Left tackle Trent Williams also mentioned Gurley and Barkley’s names in the same sentence. He described Barkley as, “out of this world,” and stated that he believes he could go down as one of the greatest to ever play the game. Even with the kind words, Williams did wish the two didn’t share the same division.
“Obviously I hate to play him twice a year,” Williams said. “But he is a very special player and you know I’m glad that the NFL continues to add talent like this to the league.”
While the Redskins understand Barkley’s talent, their only goal on Sunday is to limit them. Being faced with the task of limiting an opponent’s strong rushing attack is nothing new for the defense. In fact, it’s becoming a weekly thing.
“Every week is going to be a new challenge. It was David Johnson, you just go up and down the list. Kamara, Mark Ingram, Elliott last week,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “It’s the NFL, each week you’re going to play against one of the top guys, top running backs.”
In the past two weeks alone, the Redskins faced two of the most formidable rushing offenses in the league, and had success against both. The Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey was held to just 20 rushing yards and the Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott put up a season-low 35 yards on the ground.
The performance, according to Washington players, has largely stemmed from their play style. Foster explained that the key to stopping the run will be the continuation of the Redskins’ aggressive play. Any sort of hesitation or second-guessing by those tasked with finding and taking down the running back is something the defense cannot afford, as it gives Barkley time to find his seam and take off.
"There’s only one way to play it, that’s the way you gotta play it,” Foster said about staying aggressive. “Soon as you start hesitating or thinking too much, he’s too good of a back to give him room like that.”
It also helps that the Redskins have some pretty dominant run stoppers upfront. Head coach Jay Gruden explained last week how the defense was built for games like these. With some talented backfields in the NFC East, Washington understood that games would come down to the war in the trenches.
So far, the strategy seems to be paying off. Ranked toward the top of the league in rush defense, the Redskins have seen a complete turnaround from years past.
“It starts with our rush defense. We were last in the league last year, so it’s major improvement. I think getting Jonathan [Allen] back has been huge, and obviously Daron Payne has been huge, and re-signing Zach and Mason been big, and getting D.J. [Swearinger] and Montae [Nicholson] on the same page have been big,” Gruden said to the media on Monday. “And then, you know, the edges. The edges have been not talked about a lot, everybody cares about the stats. But, Preston [Smith] and Ryan [Kerrigan] do an excellent job setting the edge and forcing everything back to the big guys.”
The matchup between Barkley and the Washington run defense will play a big role in the outcome of Sunday’s game, but it’s not the only one to keep an eye on. While Saquon may be the new face to the Redskins, there will be a familiar face lining up on the outside, and he’s still as dangerous as ever.
While receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s season off the field has been interesting, he’s once again putting up another strong statistical year. Beckham Jr. has recorded four games of over 100 yards receiving and has caught at least six passes in all but one game. Although him and cornerback Josh Norman may not be the closest of friends, Norman still understands the greatness he and the rest of the secondary are going up against.
“Explosive guy, always wants the ball you can see that, he’s a specimen to where...well if the ball’s in the air he wants it,” Norman said about Beckham Jr. “You can tell that, he can create a lot of things with what he do. His routes, pretty crisp. You can tell out there he’s comfortable, so he really is in his element.”
The dynamic between Norman and Beckham Jr. has been an interesting one. As a member of the Panthers in 2015, the two matched up and fireworks ensued. Since then, each matchup has come with much anticipation. To Norman, it’s become less about his personal battle, as he believes the media has made it more of a spectacle, and more about him and the defense helping contribute to a win.
While seeing Beckham Jr. lined up across from him may warrant a little extra juice, the cornerback knows the main goal is to come out with a team victory. With some injuries and inexperience in the Redskins secondary, it will be all hands on deck against Beckham Jr. and company.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us, this week, next week, we’ve got guys coming that's going to be imposing a threat to us,” Norman said about the challenge the secondary faces. “We’ve just gotta be keying in and solid in our foundation and what they’re asking us to do, and try and do it to the best of our abilities. See who comes out top at the end of the game.”
The Giants may be just 1-6 on the season, but weapons like Barkley and Beckham Jr. mean there’s no time for the Redskins defense to take its foot off the gas. Week after week, there’s always going to be a challenge.
“I mean, it's never ending,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “The last couple of weeks, we've faced pretty good running backs, quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends. It's a balance that you've got to kind of choose between.”