Six weeks ago, the Tennessee Titans’ Week 15 matchup with the New York Giants wasn’t worth circling.
After nine games, the Giants were a poultry 2-7, while the Titans were riding the high of back-to-back convincing wins over the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.
At that present moment, the Titans’ game against the Giants appeared to be an almost guaranteed check mark in the win column.
Over the past five games, that idea has shifted dramatically. New York is 4-1 in its last five games, while the Titans were outscored by a combined 45 points against the Colts and Texans before needing to overcome a 16-0 deficit against the lowly Jets.
Although Tennessee was able to dominate a Jacksonville Jaguars team in free fall last Thursday night, Sunday’s game against the Giants is suddenly an unpredictable contest between a team in the thick of a tightly contested playoff race and another team looking to build momentum under a new regime.
Fortunately for the Titans, the Giants will be without superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. However, Tennessee’s biggest test of the season remains — stopping Saquon Barkley.
Barkley is in the midst of a rookie season for the ages, collecting 1,753 yards from scrimmage on 6.1 yards per touch and 13 total touchdowns. In his last four games, Barkley has rushed for 538 yards on a nice 6.9 yards per carry.
What makes Barkley such a challenge for the Titans’ defense is his versatility. He’s the prototypical NFL running back, one who can run the ball at a high level and catch passes like a wide receiver.
Running backs aren’t supposed to make those type of catches. Barkely — due to his athletic capabilities and well-respected work ethic — can do practically anything on the field, making him a nightmare for defensive coordinators.
Even if a defense is in the proper position to tackle Barkley, his instinctive style of running mixed in with jaw-dropping acceleration normally negates solid defensive positioning.
Most running backs don’t get past the first defender, let alone three defenders in the process of cutting across the field and effortlessly gliding down the sideline.
Here, Barkley makes a quick cut and immediately accelerates. He might not be a human being.
Needless to say, the Titans aren’t accustomed to facing running backs of Barkley’s caliber. In fact, Tennessee’s lone experience against an elite running back was largely a positive one.
Against the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott — the NFL’s leading rusher — Tennessee’s run defense (which currently ranks only 17th in the league) pulled out all the stops, smothering the All-Pro back to 61 yards on 17 carries.
Tennessee’s defense was clearly hyper focused on slowing down Zeke, who is the engine that makes Dallas’ offense run. Barkley’s role exists in the same spectrum as Elliott’s — he is the essential piece that makes New York’s offense a threat despite their mediocre quarterback situation.
Furthermore, stopping Barkley becomes even more of a challenge given the magnitude of the game itself. The Titans’ margin for error is basically non-existent, as there are three other 7-6 teams in the AFC fighting for the sixth wild card spot.
Tennessee has lost to all three of them.
Despite the fact that the Titans feature a proven defense that can shut down the NFL’s best players, Barkley’s skill set and the unpredictable nature of Tennessee’s team on both sides of the ball makes this the biggest test for Mike Vrabel’s team this season.