All eyes on Aaron Rodgers in London as Giants lean on Saquon Barkley resurgence

All eyes on Aaron Rodgers in London as Giants lean on Saquon Barkley resurgence

The New York Giants enter week five with a 3-1 record for the first time in 11 years. Big Blue supporters know that 2011 season all too well, fondly retracing that miraculous run to Super Bowl XLVI. It’s mostly been a torturous experience since, but this weekend’s second London game, after the Vikings edged the Saints last weekend, allows minds to drift back to that season’s divisional round: a classic against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at a frosty Lambeau Field.

Eli Manning rallied New York, surging clear late on to land a 37-20 victory on a bitter Sunday evening in Wisconsin. But it was the other side of the ball which resonates more profoundly, particularly with their return to London and their special connection with one of the UK’s most influential figures in the NFL.

Osi Umenyiora, the two-time Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowler, stripped Rodgers in that game at 20-10 during the third quarter as the Packers closed in on a trip to the red zone.

Umenyiora was a force of nature in his prime while still moving with grace; during one of the key plays of the game, his hulking 116kg frame hurdled a Packers double team before pivoting sharply at a 90-degree angle and flicking the ball out of the grasp of Rodgers to force the turnover.

While the Giants have slumped to 26th in PFF’s defense rankings, they are a respectable eighth against the pass in total yards allowed, but their vulnerability is soon exposed by that same metric when assessing them against the run, languishing fifth last. Perhaps the legacy of Umenyiora can inspire Brian Daboll’s men to extend a 42.9 per cent blitz rate this year and last week’s staggering 50 per cent pressure rate against the Chicago Bears and a floundering Justin Fields.

But while there will be a feverish desire to watch Rodgers, a four-time MVP looking for a third successive accolade, whip the ball across each blade of turf in north London on his UK debut, it will be the formidable combination of running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon who threaten to make this a one-sided contest and justify the “hosts” as 9.5-point favourites.

“With the Packers, it’s not just Aaron Jones, it’s Dillon as well,” former Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew tells The Independent. “They’ve done a really good job of running their passing game through their running backs to start the season without Davante Adams. This is opening up the game for the receivers down the field.

Osi Umenyiora celebrates at Lambeau Field in the divisional play-off round in January 2012 (Getty)
Osi Umenyiora celebrates at Lambeau Field in the divisional play-off round in January 2012 (Getty)

“When the Packers play the Giants, we’ll get a good view of how they’re transforming their offense. When you lose Adams, you don’t have a lot of good receivers, some rookies in there trying to make plays. You’ve motored your offense to go through the running game.

“Aaron Jones, when he came out from UTEP [University of Texas at El Paso], I thought he was the best back and sleeper of the draft. His ability to catch the ball, to run between the tackles, he gets skinny through the hole.

“And AJ Dillon, I wasn’t a big fan of this pick early on, but obviously when you saw what they wanted to do and thought about... a 250lb back in Wisconsin in November and December will rush for a lot of yards, nobody wants to tackle him. And going forward, it’s good to see the plan executed.”

The Packers are yet to showcase the extravagant box of tricks seen throughout Rodgers’s time with superstar wide receiver Davante Adams, who has since departed for the Las Vegas Raiders, but their bruising run game and simplified passing, to suit raw rookie prospects Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson, is providing a fine foundation for last year’s No 1 seed in the NFC.

Aaron Rodgers leads the Packers in London on Sunday (Getty)
Aaron Rodgers leads the Packers in London on Sunday (Getty)

“They’re doing enough to win, they have a QB who manages the game extremely well,” says former Super Bowl champion Kurt Warner. “He can handle the RPOs and get the ball out quickly. It seems to be either dink and dunk or chunk the ball down the field on go routes. It’s not really sophisticated, but they’ll get better. I think they’ll get more sophisticated as they get on, they’re winning with simplicity, it doesn’t matter how you win, you just need to get those Ws.”

While Jones and Dillon pack a punch, the thrill of a rejuvenated Saquon Barkley has prompted genuine buzz around the Big Apple with a league-leading 463 yards on the ground.

“Running backs who bring a dual threat, that’s where the league is going, and in Saquon, who I’ve been a tough critic of over the last few years, it seems like he’s back,” remarks Jones-Drew.

“He’s running more violently, more confidently, he’s the leader of the team. He’s more explosive, there needs to be more put on his shoulders because Daniel Jones can’t obviously handle what he’s dealing with. They need to find ways to get him the ball in space, he’s a really good route runner, a receiver, and catches the ball with his hands. Be creative.”

Saquon Barkley leads the league in rushing (Getty)
Saquon Barkley leads the league in rushing (Getty)

Quarterback Jones is the wildcard, of course, after nursing an ankle injury all week to place doubt over his appearance, with Daboll drafting in free agents for a closer look in practice due to immediate back-up Tyrod Taylor still in concussion protocol.

Denied the fifth-year option, Jones has been tasked with proving he can lead the franchise and remain a starter in the league into 2023 and beyond.

British fans will hope to see Jones match up with Rodgers given the rollercoaster nature of his performances since being drafted sixth overall in 2019. But his gritty nature and deceptive speed in space may just complement Barkley enough to provide a hint of an upset.

“We all wanted to know if Daniel Jones is the guy,” Warner remarks. “I don’t know if we know the answer to that, but Brian Daboll is playing to his strengths: Designing a lot of quick throws and getting the ball out of his hands after problems up front.

“They have three tight-end sets, hard play action and get DJ out in space so he can use his legs, simplified reads on the outside. It’s not just conventional. Creating easy opportunities. The defense is playing good, we have Saquon, let’s not put it all in Daniel Jones’s lap. It’s about building a culture and instilling some hope. Daboll has done that.”

Green Bay Packers vs New York Giants live from Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this Sunday, the second of three 2022 NFL London Games, will be live on ITV with coverage starting at 2pm BST