Many Browns fans were upset when GM John Dorsey passed on Saquon Barkley in order to select Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. While some might claim that no running back is ever worth such a high selection, Barkley’s combination of size, speed, and collegiate production was undoubtedly tantalizing.
Browns fans got their first look at Barkley in the NFL on Thursday night, and Barkley wasted no time in an attempt to shove regret down Browns fans’ throats, ripping off a 39 yard run on his first NFL play. Thankfully, he did nearly all of his damage on the first play from scrimmage, as he was limited to 3 carries for 4 yards in the rest of his limited time on the field.
How did Barkley break free? Let’s turn to the film.
On their first play from scrimmage, the Giants came out in a 12 personnel (1 Back, 2 TE) grouping, putting both TEs to the right of their formation with both WRs to the left:
This brought SS Jabrill Peppers down to play over the slot receiver, leaving rookie CB Denzel Ward in a place where he could only conceivably cover the TEs or Barkley.
From the endzone, we can see how the Browns’ 4-3 Over G defense should defend the run: in a 1 gap defense, every defender is responsible for one gap and must stop any runs coming through that gap. If every player does his job, the back will have nowhere to go.
The Giants run inside zone to the Browns’ right, with a designed cutback option for Barkley toward the tight ends. The strength of the zone runs against a 1-gap defense is that if one defender is out of position, the back can theoretically find that empty gap and run through it.
As the play begins, TE Evan Engram gets the inside track on DE Emmanuel Ogbah, sealing him off from his gap. You’d expect a player of Engram’s quickness to get the initial edge here, as Ogbah does not know what play is coming and is lined up head-up to the TE: as an offensive player Engram simply gets a head start.
As the play evolves, Ogbah is able to reclaim his gap using his power. You’d expect a DE in a 4-3 system to be able to either cross the face of the TE into that D gap, or walk the TE back into it to seal it off, and Ogbah does.
In the screenshot above, you can see that LB Christian Kirksey has also been cut off from his gap by TE Rhett Ellison. If he maintained gap discipline, he would pursue Barkley further to our right, either by pushing Ellison that way or by trying to run across his face.
It is possible that this could have been a “scrape exchange” in the defense, where the DE dives down the line and the LB scrapes over the top to the backside of the play. But in that case, you want the LB much closer to the DE than Kirksey ends up playing this (you want them close enough that the LB could be touching the DE...i.e. “scraping” off of his back.)
Also above, you can see an absence of CB Denzel Ward. While Ward had a reputation of being a big hitter in college (you got BBQ back there and you didn’t invite me?!), he will be tested against the run early and often in the NFL, where offensive coordinators constantly scheme to get their RBs 1 on 1 against a CB.
Ward has contain responsibility here, and had he reacted quicker to the play he could have hemmed Barkley up before he got going. Instead, Ward hesitated off the snap, fearing a play action pass:
Note that the Giants are already 2-3 yards downfield run blocking and Ward is just now firing forward to stop the run from 6 yards deep. He isn’t extremely late, but he isn’t on time.
Ward, the 2018 4th overall pick is also known for his speed. And once he comes forward to stop the run he gets there in a hurry:
Barkley has shown good footwork to evade Ogbah and cut back a gap in the image above. As Ward enters the picture, Kirksey has probably lost the opportunity to cross Ellison’s face with his speed, but could still drive the TE to the right and contain Barkley along with Ward.
Instead, Barkley gives a nod to the outside, luring Kirksey and Ward into stepping outside with him:
Despite being a step late in diagnosing the run, Ward is actually in decent position here to do his job. However, Kirksey has taken one too many false steps on this play and is now essentially covering the same spot on the field as Ward.
As Barkley completes his cut, Kirksey is left in a position you’d never like to see your linebackers in. I think Ward has a chance to make a tackle here if he isn’t late to the play.
Further exacerbating the problem is that MLB Joe Shobert has gotten caught up in the wash and fallen down off-screen to the right. He had plugged his A gap initially, but there is a chance that he could have pursued the play and with all of Barkley’s cutbacks, he maybe could have stopped the play after just a few yards.
Instead, Barkley is untouched up to the third level of the defense, and FS Damarious Randall is left to force him out after a big gain. You can see Schobert entering the play from the right here:
That’s not what you want to see from the Browns’ perspective.
It is always tempting to overreact to our first look at football in what seems like decades after the offseason, but there shouldn’t be many real conclusions drawn here. Barkley showed that his speed is a weapon at the NFL level, and the Browns have shown that they weren’t game-ready against the run on the first play from scrimmage in their first preseason game. Neither of these things should be surprising.
Other than that, it is hard to draw conclusions based on such a small sample size. The Browns will need to improve their discipline in all phases on defense, but the good news is that the talent and aggression appear to be there.
Should the Browns have passed on Baker Mayfield, and did Saquon Barkley break the rule that NFL teams shouldn’t draft running backs high in the first round? It’s way too early to tell.