Saquon Barkley returned, but top-form Saquon Barkley still is missing in action.
In other words, the Giants played with their star running back Monday night for the first time in five games, but Barkley didn’t perform in a 30-10 loss to the Buccaneers like he has at his best in the past — or even like he did right before he injured his ankle.
Playing for the first time since the Oct. 10 freak accident of stepping on an opponent’s foot leading to a severe low ankle sprain, Barkley carried six times for 25 yards and added six catches for 31 yards. Not nearly enough touches or production, especially thinking back to Oct. 3 and the way Barkley carried the Giants to a comeback win with two late touchdowns against the Saints.
“Obviously, upset with the outcome,” Barkley said, “but it feels good to get back out there. Just got to come back to work and get better each week.”
Barkley looked a lot like he has returning from other injuries, whether the first three games of this season after last year’s torn ACL (averaging 3.4 yards per carry) or the first seven games of his midseason return from a high ankle sprain in 2019 (averaging 3.1 per carry).
“It’s just a little frustrating to have to sit out again and come back and feel like how I was Week 1 — getting my feet caught back up,” Barkley said. “That just comes with missing a little time and getting my body back. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get my brain and my feet and my legs caught up together.”
This always was going to be a tough assignment for Barkley’s return. The Buccaneers boast the NFL’s stingiest rushing defense (79.8 yards per game). Run-stuffer Vita Vea didn’t play and Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas returned — catching a 2-yard touchdown pass on a trick play, no less — but those lineup changes weren’t nearly enough to tilt the scales on the ground in favor of one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines.
The Giants have asked Barkley to overcome odds stacked against him ever since he was the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft.
“If you don’t win the line of scrimmage,” Thomas said, “it makes it harder for the skill [position] guys to do their jobs. If we’re turning the ball over, struggling with protections, not running the ball well, it’s going to be hard to win in the NFL.”
Giants coach Joe Judge put the blame for the offensive failures against the Buccaneers on the coaching staff more than the players. Barkley doesn’t see it that way.
“Sometimes instead of pointing the finger, you have to point the thumb,” Barkley said. “Look yourself in the mirror. If I go out there and make more plays — or this person or that person makes more plays — it’s not even a conversation. We have to take that on ourselves as players, and go make the plays.”