When Bears S Adrian Amos told his teammates last year that fellow Penn State product Saquon Barkley would be the third best running back in the NFL if he weren’t still playing for the Nittany Lions, he was met with skepticism.
“He wasn’t even in the league yet, and everyone’s laughing at (Amos),” Bears CB Prince Amukamara recalled. “(But) then you see what he’s doing now. Of course, he has to sustain it, but he’s been playing lights out for them. He’s such a big, big guy but can run fast, he’s elusive, and he can shake guys.
“Coach Vic (Fangio) echoed it to us that we’re going to have to bring our hard hats and we’re going to have to tackle.”
No one’s laughing anymore.
The 5-foot-11, 233-pound Barkley will put the Bears’ No. 2 run defense to its toughest test to date Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Barkley averages 4.8 yards per carry behind a mediocre offensive line, he’s fourth in the NFL with 829 rushing yards and fifth with eight rushing touchdowns.
“It’s gonna take all 11 people to stop him,” Fangio said. “This guy will take any handoff that’s designed to go anywhere, and the ball could end up anywhere (else). This guy’s a really good back. He’s as good as advertised. He’s got speed, power (and) elusiveness, so he’s everything that he was made out to be.”
Fangio struggles when asked for a comparison to Barkley.
“He runs like some guys that are much smaller, as far as his elusiveness and cutting ability,” Fangio said. “But he’s 230, so he’s kind of unique in that way.”
The Bears’ defensive coordinator also has difficulty finding one or two plays that he can show his crew to illustrate Barkley’s unique skill set.
“That’s the problem,” Fangio said. “There’s about 30 of those plays.”
Bears head coach Matt Nagy did some evaluation of Barkley in the predraft process, but he was snapped up by the Giants second overall, six picks before the Bears chose Roquan Smith.
“Being a Pennsylvania guy, I was able to see some of the games that he played in college,” Nagy said. “They don’t make too many like him. He’s a rare talent that can do a lot of things. He’s a guy that, if you don’t come to tackle, you’ll be in trouble. He’s (first) in the league in broken tackles at that position (according to Pro Football Focus).
“And then he’s rare in what he can do in the pass game. He’s smart. He can (pass) protect and all of that. He’ll be an extreme challenge for us.”
The Bears have allowed just two 100-yard rushers in the past 29 games, and they have permitted just 16 runs of 10 yards or longer this year, the fewest in the NFL. In addition to ranking second in rushing yards allowed (80.8 per game), the Bears are first in average gain allowed per run (3.58 yards).
Only two running backs have gains longer than 18 yards vs. the Bears, the Dolphins’ Frank Gore (32), and the Lions’ LeGarrette Blount (27, last week).
Partly because of that run by Blount, the defense is coming off one of its least impressive performances. On Thanksgiving Day, the Lions ran for 111 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry, both the second-worst totals the Bears have allowed this year. What’s worse, run-stuffing DE Akiem Hicks (Achilles) has not practiced this week.
“There were a couple runs, obviously the 27-yarder, that we weren’t good on,” Fangio said. “It wasn’t up to par, and it needs to be for this guy.”
Stopping Barkley on the ground is just half of the problem. He’s tied with the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey for most receptions by a running back (71), and he’s scored four more touchdowns through the air.
“He’s caught a lot of balls,” Fangio said. “Some of them are designed routes where he’s running down the field. Some are check downs, (and) some are screens. He’s a big part of their passing game, and it becomes a problem because they’ve got good receivers obviously with (Odell) Beckham and other guys. It’s a problem.”
Everyone’s taking Barkley seriously now.