Cardinals wrecking Panthers’ gameplan starts with stopping Christian McCaffrey
TEMPE — A lot of talk this week leading up to the Arizona Cardinals’ matchup with the Carolina Panthers has been centered around the return of quarterback Cam Newton.
No, this isn’t 2015 or 2016. It’s 2021, where the midseason reunion between Newton and Panthers adds another wrinkle to the week for the Cardinals.
But let’s not forget who truly makes Carolina’s offense the go: running back Christian McCaffrey.
“The way they utilize him in the screen game, in the pass game, the run game, he can do it all,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Monday. “A tremendous player, the first guy rarely gets him down.
“They’re going to get him the ball in a myriad of ways. It’s scary when you turn on the tape and watch that guy play. He’s as good as any player in the league.”
While McCaffrey is a run or catch away from breaking off a big play, the running back’s 2021 hasn’t been up to his standards after playing just three games in an injury-riddled 2020.
Rushing for 201 yards and a touchdown on 52 carries, while adding another 163 yards on 16 receptions through the first three games of this year, McCaffrey was seeing about the same amount of usage he had seen the past few seasons.
“He’s a big-time back,” linebacker Markus Golden said Thursday. “He’s been proving that since he got into the league. I like his game a lot. He different because he can run the ball in between the tackles, he can break a big run and also he can catch the ball out the backfield. He’s proven he’s a great player, so you gotta be able to stop him for sure.”
McCaffrey couldn’t stay healthy, however, suffering a hamstring injury in Week 3 that sidelined the running back for the next five weeks. The team’s 3-0 start turned into a 4-4 mark with him out of commission. The poor play of quarterback Sam Darnold didn’t help matters, either.
Looking to ease the running back into things, Carolina gave McCaffrey just 14 carries in his return to action in Week 9. He recorded 52 yards and also caught four of his five targets for 54 yards in the eventual 24-6 loss to the New England Patriots.
With McCaffrey back in the fold, Carolina can look to improve its 27th-ranked offense (318.7 yards per game) that is 26th in scoring (19 points per game).
McCaffrey and Co. now enter a matchup against one of the top defenses in the league without starting quarterback in Darnold, who was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury this week.
Despite the team adding Newton this week, head coach Matt Rhule is turning to backup P.J. Walker on Sunday.
It marks Walker’s second career NFL start, with his first coming last season in a win over the Detroit Lions. The signal-caller threw for 258 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the Week 11 victory.
Walker is in line to start, but that doesn’t mean the Cardinals haven’t thrown a few things in just in case they see Newton in a few packages on Sunday.
“Obviously with P.J. Walker playing for them, you have to prepare for a lot of things. It’s their normal offense with maybe some wrinkles that he’s good at, some QB run stuff.
“That being said, everything’s being covered. Whoever’s playing quarterback, everything’s being covered. It has to be that way every single week anyway, so we’ll see.”
The Cardinals’ gameplan for most of the season has been to limit the damage done on the ground by opposing running backs. That holds true once again with McCaffrey the biggest threat on the field.