To topple Giants, Lions must find ways to slow dynamic ground game, force a turnover

Detroit News

Allen Park — If the key to successful football is playing to your strengths, there’s a good reason the New York Giants have exceeded all reasonable expectations and are sitting pretty with a 7-2 record just beyond the halfway point of the 2022 season.

Remember, this is the same Giants team that won four games last season, fired its coach and was too cap-strapped to make any splash additions in free agency. And a check under the hood doesn’t scream playoff team, either. They’re in the bottom of the league in yards and points and have a middle-of-the-pack defense. Yet, despite all of that, they’re getting the job done most weeks.

Defensively, they’re staying afloat by being effective in critical situations — on third down and in the red zone, where they rank second in both. But what’s defined this Giants team is the effective offense strategy of ball control and ball security, leaning heavily on resurgent running back Saquon Barkley.

Barkley, arguably the best running prospect in the past decade, validated that hype as a rookie in 2018, rushing for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns. But injuries the past three years prevented him from repeating that performance. Ankle sprains in 2019 and 2021, and a torn ACL in 2020, left him averaging 9.3 games and 543 yards during that three-year stretch.

But under first-year coach Brian Daboll — who has historically leaned on the ground game as an offensive coordinator with Miami, Kansas City, Buffalo and the University of Alabama — a healthy Barkley is back at the top of the rushing ranks, leading the NFL with 931 yards through nine games.

“Man, you talk about vision, you talk about being able to break a tackle and take it the distance, that’s the one trait that you see with him that’s unlike any other back that we’ve went against,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “So, the ability to make sure we get the ball down is important with that player. Population to the ball is important with that player. This jump cut, his ability to burst is probably the best I’ve seen this year as far as a running back.”

And it’s not just Barkley doing damage on the ground. Quarterback Daniel Jones is one of the league’s most underrated dual threats at the position. While he might not stress a defense the same way Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson or Chicago’s Justin Fields can with their mobility, Jones sits fourth in rushing yards among quarterbacks, nearing a career-high with 387 yards on 69 attempts.

So, just like last week, when the Lions had the unenviable challenge of keeping Fields contained to the pocket and struggled with the task, they’ll have to be similarly wary of the zone-read action the Giants like to incorporate, where the quarterback will read the defensive end, while deciding whether to hand it off to Barkley or keep the ball and run around an open edge.

“We can’t lose sight of him,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “I’ve got some clips that I’ve pulled up where they’ll have some quarterback-driven runs that will pop up every once in a while. They don’t do a ton of it, but there’s enough of it to pay attention to, because he’s got speed and he can run. And then there’s a couple times on third down where he’ll take off if (there are no open receivers) and he’ll get the first down with his feet.”

Equally impressive to Jones’ running ability has been his smart decision-making. He might not take many shots downfield (only eight throws 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage through nine games), but he’s been extremely efficient and especially smart with the football. He’s completing a career-high 65.8% of his passes and has thrown only two interceptions this season. After getting picked off 29 times in his first three seasons, Jones’ interception rate in 2022 only trails surefire Hall of Famer Tom Brady.

So the Giants’ game plan is simple: Run the ball, control the clock, don’t turn it over. It’s not the most exciting game plan, but the old-school approach is working for them. They’re doing the combination of all three as well as anyone this season, which has them on track to make their first playoff appearance since 2016.

So if the Lions want any shot of beating the Giants, extending their own mini-hot streak to three straight wins, they’ll have to find a way to slow down Barkley, similar to when Seattle held him to 53 yards on 20 carries two weeks ago in a 27-13 victory.

Also forcing a turnover, like Detroit has done in wins over Green Bay and Chicago, would go a long way.

“We need a takeaway,” Campbell said. “This team’s not doing it, but we have to get a takeaway. That’s something we’ve been good at the last four or five weeks. We need it. It’s helped us.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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