49ers face dynamic rookie Saquon Barkley at the right time against Giants

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After three weeks, the idea of the 49ers defense facing Saquon Barkley would have been considered a mismatch of considerable proportions. San Francisco was profoundly challenged, tackling-the-man-with-the-wise, and it didn’t look as though they ever would be.
 
But the New York Giants rookie running back, who has given the Giants the one offensive shard of hope they have in an otherwise wasted year, will be confronting a better San Francisco defense come Monday evening.
 
The run defense, in particular, which ranked a dismal 23rd after three weeks, has improved to 12th going into Monday’s game, and Barkley, who has suffered from all the other failings the Giants have offensively, will be relied upon more than any other Giant to keep New York competitive.
 
That is, if New York has anything resembling an offense. Quarterback Eli Manning has been harassed all season (a league-leading 31 sacks), and Odell Beckham, Jr., has been targeted often without getting much end zone time.
 
Barkley’s rushing year has been among the game’s best in what is a historically fallow period for running backs. He has only two 100-yard games, but his yards per carry average is a respectable 4.7, and combined with his  pass-catching (58 for 497 yards, second in the league behind New England’s James White) has made him among the league leading running backs. He is the modern running back in all ways, Todd Gurley without the teammate support.
 
And if this brief review from defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is helpful, he is probably the 49ers’ leading concern of the several he listed in Friday’s breakdown.
 
“The Giants have an incredible set of skill players,” he said, heding the truth at least slightly. “The tight end, Evan Engram, is really good. Odell (Beckham, Jr.,) is obviously really good. (Barkley) is phenomenal. Well worth the draft pick. Even (wide receiver) Sterling Shepard’s a really good player. So, it’s going to be a great challenge for us this week.”
 
As for Barkley himself, the raves are less boilerplate and more revelatory.
 
“God, he is dynamic,” Saleh said. “For his size, it’s very deceptive because it doesn’t look like he is moving, but the son of a gun is moving. He’s got tremendous balance. He’s got great feet. He’s obviously used in the pass game. I think they’re pretty much even rushing to passing yards, but his actual yards per carry are sitting at I think 4.7 so he’s doing a really good job running the ball. He creates holes. I don’t want to put him in  Barry Sanders’ world yet-- he’s got a chance, but he just has a knack. He’s got great patience. He finds holes. He makes people miss. Well worth the investment, for sure.”
 
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ run defense has risen due to its ability to keep potential big hitters from uncoiling. Only one opponent, Los Angeles Charger Melvin Gordon, has gained over 65 yards against them, and while some teams have worn them down in bulk, Barkley IS the Giants’ running attack, and a good chunk of their  passing attack as well.
 
Still, the Giants are 1-7 for a reason, and they rank in the mid-20s almost across the board on both sides of the ball. They will need an out-of-context effort to give the 49ers the kind of game the Oakland Raiders did not a week ago, and the most likely person to deliver that is Barkley.
 
That is, of course, unless football happens, and the 49ers revert to their early-season form. Two teams near the bottom of the NFL trough are capable of anything, and equally incapable as often as not. This has a chance to be as much of a formless mess as it does a sensible football game, and the key to that may indeed be Barkley. One non-quarterback with the ball in his hands 20-plus times a game can bring structure to nearly any game.
 
On a more trivial note, the 49ers have been monitoring the air quality re: the Camp Fire 200 miles from Santa Clara, and still is only five percent contained. The air quality index before practice was at 169, 31 points below the limit for normal activity, so the team went in full pads for a normal practice.
 
“It’s like smoking a cigarette,” Richard Sherman joked as he thought about the hazy conditions outside. “I mean, I like practice, but I like my life, too.”
 
The air is supposed to get more problematic over the weekend, but wind shifts and control of the fire will determine whether the air becomes an issue Monday.

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