Barber seems a cut above Giants' rookie RB making offense go

September 11, 1997|By Rich Fisher | Rich Fisher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After just two NFL games, Tiki Barber has become a reflection of the Giants' fortune, be it good or bad.

On opening day, Barber, a rookie running back from Virginia, gained 88 yards on 20 carries, scored one touchdown and set up another in New York's 31-17 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

In Sunday's 40-13 loss at Jacksonville, Barber scored on a 4-yard run, but was held to 17 yards on 11 carries and his second-quarter fumble set up the Jaguars' first touchdown. He left in the fourth quarter with a sprained shoulder but will start Sunday against the Ravens.

Quarterback Dave Brown, who knows criticism as well as he knows the playbook, says none should be directed at Barber for the Jacksonville debacle.

"You can't question the way Tiki's playing at all," Brown said. "He's gotten the tough yards. We did not do a good job of getting him open spaces to make the plays."

Coach Jim Fassel agreed, as he ripped into his offensive line for its poor performance against the Jaguars.

"Everybody is affected by that offensive line," Fassel said. "But I didn't sense a frustration in Tiki from that standpoint."

Barber has no reason to feel frustrated, considering his perch on the depth chart is higher than expected.

After setting Virginia records for career rushing attempts (651) and yards gained (3,389), Barber was drafted in the second round (first-round pick Ike Hilliard injured his neck against Jacksonville and will miss six to seven weeks).

Since Barber gives the Giants their best receiving threat out of the backfield since Dave Meggett, the initial plan was to make him a third-down receiver. But when starter Rodney Hampton injured his knee and Tyrone Wheatley hurt his ankle before the Giants' third preseason game with the Jets, Barber got the start. He has carried the load, despite Wheatley's return to good health.

"The biggest thing was learning all this stuff," said Barber, who was one of four rookies in the lineup for the opener. "You can't mess up every now and then like you did in college because the level of competition is so much greater."

Barber fits in well with Fassel's offense, which is more animated than the dreary mess Dan Reeves left behind.

"Coach Fassel has been preaching an up-tempo kind of game, where we get the play off quick and maybe catch them off guard," Barber said. "He's a great guy and his attitude is pretty much in line with mine.

"He's a positive guy. He'll tell you when you mess up, he won't beat around the bush. But he also likes to encourage you and makes sure you're heading in the same direction all the time."

It was usually the wrong direction in Jacksonville, a loss that had a sobering effect on Giants fans after their giddy upset of the Eagles.

"Every week you have to be ready to play," Barber said. "You can't let your guard down at all or someone's gonna jump on you."

Barber is 12th in the NFC in rushing with 105 yards. Throw in six receptions for 75 yards and he is 14th in total yards from scrimmage with 180. His element of surprise may help Barber reach his Rookie of the Year goal.

"People aren't ready for what he has to offer," tackle Scott Gragg said. "He's explosive and can break tackles, and he can also catch the ball on screens and dump off passes, then get you yardage after the catch. It's something people wouldn't expect from someone his size."

Ah, the size. It's something that always comes into play with the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Barber. Though he was the featured back for three seasons and never missed a game at Virginia, people question his durability for the NFL.

Fassel promises to rest Barber, although he did not play Wheatley against Jacksonville until Barber hurt his shoulder after the game was decided. Barber merely points to Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders as examples of small backs who thrive.

"His size is an asset to him," Brown said. "He kind of disappears behind the big offensive linemen, and, by the time the linebackers know where he is, he's already through the crack."

"He's a guy you better corral," Fassel said. "He can make you miss."

Ravens rookie linebacker Peter Boulware of Florida State is familiar with Barber because they met as Atlantic Coast Conference opponents. The remainder of the Ravens' defense also gained an idea of Barber's talents after he rushed for 33 yards on six carries in the Giants' 21-20 preseason win.

"I don't think either team showed too much then. It's different in preseason than regular season," Barber said. "They're going to come out ready to play. I don't think we're down about last week. We're more anxious to get back and show that we can play. We wanted to win three of our first four, so we have to come back and win this one and get back on track."

Giants update Record: 1-1

Last week: Lost to Jacksonville, 40-13

Last meeting against Ravens: Defeated the Cleveland Browns, 16-13, on Dec. 12, 1994.

Who's hot: Rookie Tiki Barber leads the team in rushing with 105 yards on 31 carries and is second in receiving with six catches for 75 yards. Thomas Lewis has averaged 29.4 yards on eight kickoff returns. The offensive line has allowed three sacks.

Who's not: Dave Brown has completed 29 of 62 passes (46.8 percent) for 375 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Former first-round pick Tyrone Wheatley has one carry in the first two games.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: New York Giants

Site: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Giants by 3

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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