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Mind the gap: Bills defenders preach discipline as Saquon Barkley looms

Saquon Barkley led the NFL last season in rushes of 20 or more yards with 16, the most of any back in a single season in the last four years.

What’s one likely way the Bills can lose to the Giants Sunday at MetLife Stadium? Let New York’s second-year running back make a bunch of game-breaking plays.

“He’s the new premier running back in the league,” said Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. “Top-five guy, very explosive, patient good cutback runner, big, he has all the tools. We’re going to have our hands full this week.”

Barkley led the NFL last season in yards from scrimmage with 2,028. He was No. 2 in rushing with 1,307 and added 721 yards receiving.

“You don’t see his type of talent come along that often,” said Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. “He is a special running back for sure. … So, he'll present a lot of problems both as a receiver, 91 catches a season ago, and the ability to run and make people miss, run through tackles and outrun tacklers.”

The Bills’ defenders were preaching the importance of sticking to their own assignments and not trying to cheat into somebody else’s gap in the run defense.

“He’s a guy you may think is in the A gap,” Alexander said, referring to the spaces between the center and the two guards. “And if that’s somebody else’s gap and you think you’re about to rip off and make a play, the next thing you know he’s in your gap running for 60 yards and hitting his head on the goal post.”

“So we need to be gap sound, disciplined,” Alexander said. “And then once he does declare and there’s a point of no return as we call it — where he can’t jump back in your gap — guys have to rip off and gang tackle him.”

The Bills stayed disciplined last week in holding New York Jets star back Le'Veon Bell to 60 yards on 17 carries. Barkley exploited poor gap discipline in Dallas on Sunday for a 59-yard run on the second play from scrimmage.

“If you go back and look at the play, they were gapped out up front and that safety just lost his gap,” safety Jordan Poyer said of the Cowboys. “He was supposed to stay in his gap and he jumped outside, and they had two players outside.

“I was telling them earlier today,” Poyer said of his teammates, “gap integrity is going to be huge for our team, guys having to stay in their gaps because he will find the open hole.”

Missing tackles is another problem that is hard to avoid against Barkley. The 233-pounder has big thighs that aid his explosiveness.

Barkley’s 41-inch vertical jump at the NFL combine in 2018 was best ever for a running back over 230 pounds, and better than NFL All-Pro receiver Julio Jones (38.5). Barkley’s 4.40-second 40 time is believed to be the second best ever for a running back over 230 pounds.

“Arm tackles aren’t gonna work,” Poyer said. “You’re gonna have to get 11 hats to the ball. He can run through people.”

Bills rookie offensive lineman Ryan Bates blocked for Barkley in 2017.

“He made my job easier,” Bates said.

“I remember we played Iowa my junior year,” Bates said, referring to a game in which Barkley produced 305 yards on 40 touches. “He had some runs you can’t teach, jumping over one person, he gets hit in midair, lands on his feet and scores a touchdown.”

Barkley had 139 yards on 15 touches against Dallas. No defense has kept him from getting at least one 15-yard gain via rushing or receiving in his 17-game NFL career.

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