GREEN BAY – When it comes to running backs, the first 12 games of the 2023 NFL season has pitted the Packers against All-Pros, Pro Bowlers, and a pair of rookie first-round picks.
This Monday night, however, Green Bay faces perhaps its biggest test to date when it travels to MetLife Stadium to face Saquon Barkley and the New York Giants.
Because for all the backfield talent the Packers have seen, there is perhaps no running back whose individual success impacts his team's fortunes more than the 26-year-old Barkley.
Having put an early season ankle sprain behind him, the two-time Pro Bowl running back has been his old playmaking self for a Giants team that won back-to-back games for the first time this season prior to its Week 13 bye.
"Great running back, man," said defensive lineman Kenny Clark of Barkley. "He can do everything, receiver out of the backfield. In-and-out cutter, running between the tackles, outside perimeter game. He's elusive. He's a strong back, too. We're going to have our hands full with him."
Clark and the Packers have faced Barkley twice before. The first encounter came in December 2019. While Green Bay turned back the Giants in a 31-13 thrashing at MetLife, Barkley still bullied his way to 115 total yards on 22 touches.
Round 2 came a year ago in London, with Barkley getting the best of Green Bay during New York's 27-22 comeback victory. He registered 106 total yards, including a 40-yard run off a direct snap in a Wildcat formation. Barkley's 2-yard TD run in the fourth quarter broke a 20-20 tie and put the Giants up for good.
Now comes Monday's rubber match in East Rutherford, N.J. While it has been a trying season for the 4-8 Giants, Barkley's return paired with the emergence of rookie quarterback Tommy DeVito has given New York fresh hope.
Statistically, Barkley's 697 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown don't match up with the 1,312 yards and 10 TDs he posted during his resurgent 2022 campaign, but the 6-foot, 232-pound running back remains as dangerous as ever.
"Saquon can do anything he wants on the football field," Packers inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. "He's a phenomenal football player and a very good athlete, and he makes plays and they put him in position to make plays. ... It's one of the bigger challenges you're gonna face."
New York came into the year with high expectations after a surprise 9-7-1 debut under new head coach Brian Daboll in 2022 earned the Giants their first trip to the playoffs in six seasons.
However, injuries quickly changed that forecast. Barkley was sidelined with a high-ankle sprain from Weeks 3-5 and the Giants' run game struggled mightily without him.
New York's skill-position players combined for just 117 rushing yards and one TD on 55 carries (2.3 yards per carry), with no individual rush longer than eight yards. The Giants lost all three games while scoring just 31 combined points.
As soon as Barkley began returning to form, quarterback Daniel Jones tore his anterior cruciate ligament amidst a midseason tailspin in which New York won just one of eight games.
A healthier Barkley helped pull the Giants out of their funk in Washington on Nov. 19, totaling 140 yards and two receiving touchdowns in a 31-19 win over the Commanders. It was just the second time the Giants have scored more than 17 points.
"Obviously when they're running, they want the ball in his hand," said defensive line coach/run game coordinator Jerry Montgomery of Barkley. "They do enough with him in the pass game whether it's screens or out of the backfield, empty, running verticals. He's a big part of (their offense)."
The Packers are winners of three straight but know the Giants cannot be taken lightly. Green Bay's defense hasn't allowed more than 24 points since Week 4 but ranks 30th against the run (136.3 yards per game) after conceding more than 200 rushing yards in losses to Atlanta, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.
While containing Barkley is a challenge, it comes with a high reward. The Giants are last in passing offense (151.6 yards per game), second-to-last in third-down efficiency (30.9%) and have allowed 69 sacks, which is 11 more than any other NFL team.
As impressive as DeVito has been in relief, the undrafted rookie out of Illinois has been sacked 26 times in the last four games.
"It's a wonderful opportunity but we still have to earn the right to rush the passer," Clark said. "Saquon is a great running back and they do a really great job at that. That's the key, stopping the run. That's first and foremost and then we can get a chance to rush the passer and we'll get our opportunities there."
Back at 6-6 after conquering their own midseason doldrums, the Packers look to build upon season-altering wins over NFC North-leading Detroit and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City in recent weeks.
But it all starts with keeping Barkley in check…and out of the end zone. Despite their eight losses, the Giants are 3-0 when their franchise running back scores at least one touchdown.
"We all know about Saquon and his ability," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "He's an elite back, one of the best in the business."