Slowing down rookie phenom Saquon Barkley will not be easy for the Tennessee Titans. Their two young LBs must step up.
When the New York Giants selected RB Saquon Barkley #2 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, many football analysts critiqued the move, saying that they should have used their high draft position to select their QB of the future. While there certainly is merit to that argument, Barkley has done everything in his power to prove that the Giants made the right decision. The rookie has become one of the best RBs in football almost immediately – he currently ranks 4th in both rushing yards and receiving yards among all NFL RBs and is rated the #1 RB by Pro Football Focus.
Obviously, Barkley has to be the focus of the Tennessee Titans’ defensive game plan for their matchup this weekend. This probably would have been the case even if Odell Beckham Jr. played, but with the star WR sidelined for the second straight week, the Giants will lean heavily on Barkley. But slowing down Barkley is easier said than done – over the past four games, he is averaging almost 160 total yards and 1.5 TDs per game, and that includes a game against the #1 defense in the NFL, the Chicago Bears. The Titans possess a middle of the road defense (currently 17th overall in defensive DVOA), so how can they hope to slow down the rookie?
In order to do so, the Titans are going to need big performances out of their two young ILBs, Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown. Both players have been playing at a very high level as of late, and they will have to continue to do so against the Giants. The duo makes for a good counter to Barkley – he can hurt you both on the ground and through the air, and Evans and Brown have both been good against the run and in coverage.
Evans has been particularly impressive against run. Over the past six games, Pro Football Focus has him graded 2nd overall in run defense among off ball LBs. He also has not missed a tackle during that stretch, a trend that hopefully continues against a player like Barkley who can do a lot of damage if you don’t bring him down on the first attempt. Evans seems to have a knack for making a big play when the team needs it most, like last week when he sliced in to stop the Jaguars’ 4th and goal attempt.
Brown is also solid against the run, but it’s on passing downs where he really shines.
In that same Week 7-13 span, Brown has allowed a completion on 55% of the passes thrown his way, which puts him 2nd among off-ball LBs. He has yet to allow a touchdown on a coverage snap this season. Of course, not all of those coverage snaps necessarily came against RBs, but Brown is a valuable asset in coverage who the Titans should try to scheme into covering Barkley as often as possible. And while Evans had a rough start in coverage, he also has stepped up his game since Week 7 and ranks 22nd in coverage among off ball LBs since then.
One knock you could make against Barkley is that he tends to be big play or bust. Take last week’s game against the Washington Redskins for example: His rushing total of 170 yards is impressive, but if you remove his two rushes of 78 and 52 yards, he only averaged 3.33 YPC on his 12 other carries. He is also the only RB in the league where over 50% of his yards have come on runs of 15 yards are more. Preventing big runs may be easier said than done, but the Titans have excelled at it this season. They have only allowed three runs of 20+ yards and zero 40+ yards runs, both of which rank best in the league. Having athletic linebackers like Brown and Evans flying around makes it easier to prevent big plays, and the Titans will have to continue that trend on Sunday.
Slowing down a running back like Barkley will obviously require contributions from all members of the Tennessee defense, but I expect Evans and Brown to be the difference makers. Their athleticism and run defense instincts will hopefully prevent a big run by Barkley, and their coverage skills should hamper him from hurting the Titans through the air. And even if Barkley still manages to best them this weekend, Titans fans should be comforted by the respective bright futures of these two young linebackers.