The San Francisco 49ers defense has been dominating through seven weeks of the season, but they face a tough task in Week 8 as they must find a way to slow down Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey’s background and skill set
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey was drafted eighth overall out of Stanford in the 2017 NFL Draft and has been the focal point of the Panthers offense ever since. The main reason the Panthers felt he was worth a top-10 pick was because of his pass-catching ability, which they figured would give quarterback Cam Newton easier, higher percentage throws.
With Newton out with injury, McCaffrey’s production has increased and he has been No. 2 quarterback Kyle Allen’s safety valve and go-to guy in short-yardage situations. Through six games of the season, McCaffrey has averaged more than 50 yards a game through the air and more than 100 on the ground.
These numbers have led to some analysts and fans stating McCaffrey is the leader in the MVP race.
During a press conference this week, head coach Kyle Shanahan compared McCaffrey to the legendary Hall of Famer, Marshall Faulk. McCaffrey is certainly not on Faulk’s level yet, but does have the big-play ability and elusiveness which made Faulk great.
During the same press conference, Shanahan stated he idolized Ed McCaffrey, Christian’s father, when he was younger, which is likely because the elder McCaffrey played for both the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers.
While looking at McCaffrey’s film for this year, the player that he reminds me of is coincidentally the 49ers running back, Matt Breida. Breida and McCaffrey are both relatively small backs, both have great vision, both have great footwork and are both effective pass catchers. The traits that separate them are McCaffrey’s ability to make defenders miss in space and his superior pass blocking, and Breida’s superior speed. Breida ran a 4:38 40-yard time, while McCaffrey ran a 4:48.
Pro Football Focus also struggles to separate them, as they have McCaffrey ranked as the second best running back in the league and Breida the fifth.
Another difference is McCaffrey’s production, but this is mostly down to the fact Breida has a lot more competition for rushes and targets.
Norv Turner, the Panthers offensive coordinator, uses a similar running scheme to Shanahan with a mix of zone runs, counters and some power/gap runs. Like Breida, McCaffrey’s skill set is best utilized in a zone-run scheme, as vision and footwork are the essential skills needed.
How the 49ers should stop McCaffrey
The key to stopping the Panthers offense is to stop McCaffrey. The best way to do this is to always have an extra man in the box. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom the Panthers played in their last game, illustrated the effectiveness of this on their first defensive series.
On the first play of the game for the Panthers offense, they used 12 personnel (which is one running back and two tight ends), the Bucs subsequently put eight men in the box as the Panthers had seven.
On the second play of the game, the Panthers used 11 personnel, the Bucs subsequently put seven men in the box as the Panthers had six.
On both of these plays, Allen was pretty much forced to pass, as the Panthers were outnumbered in the run game. The obvious downside of putting an extra man in the box is you would only have one extra defensive back in the passing game; if the offense is running 11 personnel, the defense would have four defensive backs, as they have to put seven in the box in order to outnumber them, the offense would have three wide receivers if they were using 11 personnel.
This means the quarterback would have a selection of one-on-one matchups to choose from. On the two plays mentioned above, Allen tried to pass it to the outside but failed to connect, and thus the Panthers were forced into a 3rd-and-10.
The key to stopping a patient and elusive back like McCaffrey is for the linebackers not to over pursue, defensive ends need to set the edge and spill the play inside and the interior defensive lineman to play aggressively. Doing this effectively will limit the space McCaffrey gets and thus limit his big plays.
And without big plays, McCaffrey doesn’t have the power or the offensive line to consistently grind out 4- or 5-yard runs.
In the passing game, it is essential to have the best coverage linebacker shadowing McCaffrey at all times, especially when he runs to the flat. The Buccaneers again illustrated the effectiveness of this strategy, as they were able to hold McCaffrey to just two catches in their Week 2 matchup. In this game, the Bucs primarily used Lavonte David to cover McCaffrey in the passing game, and it certainly paid dividends.
The player most suited to fulfilling the same role as David is his former teammate, 49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander. Alexander is by far the 49ers best coverage linebacker and has the speed to keep up with McCaffrey (Alexander ran a 4.55 40-yard time).
The 49ers pass defense has been exceptional this year, and they are certainly better than the Panthers receivers. Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will know the key to stopping the Panthers, offensively, is to first stop McCaffrey. So, it’s the best bet to risk giving one-on-ones to the Panthers wide receivers than giving McCaffrey opportunities to get in space. If they can do this effectively, the 49ers’ defense will dominate for another week.