Carolina Panthers offense starts, stops with RB Christian McCaffrey
TEMPE — Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey enters the Week 4 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals as a wild card.
Only getting one day of practice in this week — and in a limited fashion no less — McCaffrey is listed as questionable for the matchup.
Without him on the field, Arizona dodges a massive bullet and can pin back its ears a bit more when it comes to putting the pressure on quarterback Baker Mayfield in what could be a wet affair.
If he does suit up, though — the running back told reporters he “feels great” on Friday — the Cardinals will need to be ready for the versatility he brings as both a runner and pass catcher regardless of if he’s 100% or not.
In two games against the Cardinals — both wins — McCaffrey was the key cog to the offense behind 248 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He also added 13 catches for 101 yards.
His most recent showing against Arizona showed just how dangerous he can be in both aspects of the offense, recording 95 yards on 13 carries to go along with 10 catches (10 targets) for 66 yards.
“It all starts with Christian McCaffrey,” safety Budda Baker said Friday. “That offense is a great offense and he’s one of the main guys in that offense. If we can try and slow him down a little bit, slow some other guys down a little bit, things will look good for us.
“He’s a four-down back,” the safety added. “He’s a guy that can run in between the tackles, they can also pitch the ball to him and he can run outside the tackles and he can also get out of the backfield and run angle routes, wheel routes … he’ll be at receiver and running option routes. He can do it. … He’s a real-life athlete.”
McCaffrey’s ability to dictate outcomes of football games cannot be denied. Sixty-one games of 6,902 scrimmage yards and 48 touchdowns on 1,198 touches says all you need to know.
That is if he can stay healthy, though.
The biggest knock on McCaffrey’s game comes down to his availability, with the running back appearing in just 13 games over the past three seasons. The last time he saw a full season of work was back in 2019.
And when McCaffrey isn’t on the field, the Panther’s record takes a big hit, with Carolina sporting a 6-17 mark in the games the running back missed in 2020 and 2021. In the matchups he did play in over that same timeframe, the team was much closer to .500 at 4-6.
“He is a special player watching him on tape,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday. “And obviously last year’s game … against us … was not good for us. He’s a special player. If he pops, he can make a big play. … He is capable of making big plays in the running and passing game alike and that makes him dangerous.”
This season has been a typical one for McCaffrey, who is coming off back-to-back 100-yard efforts on the ground while still seeing a sizable workload (10 receptions for 57 yards) as a pass catcher. In the one game he didn’t top 100 yards rushing, he still managed to find the end zone running the rock.
The plan for Joseph and the defense, especially in the red zone, is to match up McCaffrey with like-skilled defenders as opposed to a bigger linebacker that would be a liability up against a guy of McCaffrey’s stature.
From there, it’s about limiting his chunk plays, particularly in the screen game, where the Cardinals have allowed 147 yards and two touchdowns on 16 receptions so far in 2022, per Pro Football Focus.
An offense can’t build off a spark if it doesn’t pop in the first place.