HOUSTON -- Sterling Shepard scored the game-winning touchdown. Eli Manning had perhaps his best game in years. All rookie running back Saquon Barkley did for the New York Giants in a 27-22 victory over the Houston Texans was top 100 total yards for the third straight game and make one of the biggest, clutchest plays in his team's first win of the season.
It is hardly a surprise at this point that his biggest impact may have been as a receiver. Barkley caught 14 passes the previous week against the Dallas Cowboys. He is a menace to opposing defenses as a runner (82 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown vs. Houston), but he’s equally as dangerous as a pass-catcher. He caught all five of his targets for 35 yards on Sunday afternoon.
But it was his final catch that stood out among the rest. It was special, and it helped put the game away. It came on a third-and-2 from the Texans’ 27-yard line with 3:55 remaining and the Giants leading 20-15.
Coach Pat Shurmur called for an empty set with no running back in the backfield. He had three wide receivers (Odell Beckham Jr., Shepard and Cody Latimer) to the left, tight end Rhett Ellison just off the line to the right and Barkley out wide to the right. Quarterback Eli Manning was in the shotgun.
What Shurmur wanted to do was spread out the Texans’ defense, something which worked throughout the game.
Shurmur: “I had a play I liked from being spread out. That is it, and the ball could come out quick in those situations.”
Barkley ended up one-on-one on the outside against linebacker Zach Cunningham.
Beckham Jr.: “That’s a good matchup.”
Manning took the snap, went back and fired an arcing lob pass 17 yards downfield. He didn’t look toward Ellison, who was wide open in the right flat and would’ve rather easily made a first down.
Shurmur: “If that matchup is there, you take it. If that matchup is not there, you move on. That is why [six different] guys catch balls. Certainly that is the first look.”
Barkley made a quick move at the line of scrimmage to sidestep Cunningham, who tried to use his hands to slow his release. It didn't work. Cunningham lunged and Barkley slithered past him down the right sideline with relative ease. Barkley raised his hand to indicate to Manning that he was open. The rookie running back then imitated a wide receiver by smoothly jumping while simultaneously using his body as a shield to make the catch.
Barkley: “Third down. Crucial part of the game. I saw the guy was pressing me. I knew I had a go-route. You go through your progression. Eli trusts me during that play. I beat him at the line. He was there to give me a great ball and I was able to come up and make a great catch in that moment.”
Manning: “We put him outside a few times and ran a couple different routes. That time had a linebacker on him that was pressed up. He had a go-route. He beat him right off the line of scrimmage. I threw it up and gave him a shot. He did a good job making a catch right there. He kind of came back to it, jumped up. He’s athletic and it’s good to see him do that.”
Shurmur: “Eli liked it, popped it. It was a good throw, good catch. It had a lot to do with us winning the game."
Shepard put the game out of reach three plays later when he caught a touchdown pass to make it 27-15. It wouldn’t have been possible without the mismatch with Barkley vs. a linebacker moments earlier. That is part of what makes the rookie special and lured the Giants with the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft. It's paying immediate dividends.
Barkley: “The moral of the story is it’s a team game. It was a great play. The [offensive] line did a great job blocking giving Eli time. Eli did a great job with ball placement and I was able to come up and make a play.”
Beckham: “It just makes it difficult for teams to line up. How are you going to cover that? Anytime you have him out there one-on-one, whether it’s the linebacker, the safety, it’s good.
“It doesn’t surprise me. Why not? It’s a guy you can trust to make plays. It’s a guy who is going to come through every time.”
Barkley: "In my mind, my mindset, whether it’s a linebacker or safety or cornerback, I believe in myself in that situation. It’s the NFL. Those guys are going to make plays too. But at the end of the day, I believe I will make more plays than they do. Like I said, I went up to Eli and said thank you for trusting me in that situation and giving me a chance to go up and make a play.”
Shurmur: “It was a good play. They were playing man-free, we had a good matchup and that is one of the things that Saquon could do. That was a key play in the game right there.”