Christian McCaffrey another obstacle for Cardinals to overcome vs. 49ers
TEMPE — Carolina Panther Christian McCaffrey was great.
San Francisco 49er Christian McCaffrey has been something else.
Since the running back was dealt to 49ers in Week 7, he has been utilized all over the field in head coach Kyler Shanahan’s offense.
In his first three games with his new team, McCaffrey amassed 170 yards and two touchdowns on the ground on 40 carries.
But it’s been what he’s doing in the receiving game that has opposing coordinators staying up late. Reeling in 14 of the 17 targets for 118 yards and a TD, McCaffrey has been a problem. He’s not just coming out of the backfield, either, lining up in both the slot (16 times) and out wide (seven) through three meetings.
Oh yeah, he’s thrown for a score, too. San Francisco is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to further unlocking the Stanford alum.
“Their running game is obviously their first deal they do, but him as a receiver is a tough match for most backers,” Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday, ahead of the Cardinals’ Monday Night Football matchup in Mexico City. “So, to have a plan to get the right guy on him on first, second and third down is a must for us. Adding one more great player to their offense is good for them and bad for us.
“It’s definitely different watching them with him and without. He’s in the slot, he’s running jets, he’s running sweeps, he’s catching balls downfield, he’s throwing passes. To watch what they’ve done with him the past month has been kind of scary, but we’ll see what happens on Monday.”
Arizona got a front row seat of McCaffrey’s abilities as a pass catcher back in the team’s Week 4 win over the Panthers. The running back was largely held in check by the Cardinals defense, scoring a receiving touchdown late in a blowout. He still managed nine catches for 81 yards.
But unlike the Panthers, the 49ers don’t have to go as McCaffrey does to be successful, though he certainly helps.
Given his lengthy injury history, McCaffrey has seen at least 81% of available offensive snaps just once through three games. He was even out-touched 19-18 by fellow running back Elijah Mitchell, who returned to action last week after spending most of the first half of the season on injured reserve.
Mitchell led the way on the ground for the 49ers behind 89 yards on 18 carries, while McCaffrey went to work in the air.
It’s allowed the latter to limit the wear and tear, while also giving the 49ers more of an opportunity to open up the playbook with a handful of other weapons.
Deebo Samuel leads off a dangerous trio of playmakers that is rounded by wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle.
Samuel has continued his versatile ways in 2022, recording 576 scrimmage yards and four total touchdowns, but it’s been Aiyuk who has paced the WR room.
In nine games played, the Arizona State alum has put up 567 yards and four touchdowns on 44 catches (62 targets). He’s accounted for 26 first downs and has eight plays of at least 20 receiving yards on this year’s resume. All those numbers currently lead the team.
Kittle, on the other hand, has been a bit hit or miss so far this season after missing the first two games of the season due to a groin injury. He’s still had his moments, though, scoring or recording at least 83 yards in three of the last four outings.
While the 49ers have a plethora of weapons, keeping Kittle in check will be key to the Cardinals’ chances on Monday.
Covering the tight end has been an issue in recent weeks for Arizona, giving up team-leading numbers in back-to-back games. Seattle Seahawks TE Noah Fant nearly topped the century mark with 96 yards on five catches in Week 9 before the Los Angeles Rams’ Tyler Higbee nabbed eight receptions for 73 yards.
This game has the makings of a busy one for star backer Isaiah Simmons.
The versatile backer is sure to have his hands full to cover a combination of some of San Francisco’s best threats. After a shaky start to the season that included reduced playing time, Simmons has gotten back to being a consistent presence on the defense, seeing no less than 75% of available snaps in six of the last seven games.
Another name that could be counted on even more on Sunday is cornerback Antonio Hamilton with the status of No. 1 CB Byron Murphy Jr. murky at best as he continues to deal with a back injury.
Hamilton filled in admirably in place of Murphy last week, recording a team-high 12 tackles to go along with two passes defensed.
“That’s the biggest thing for us is the next man has got to step up,” Murphy said Thursday.
“Whoever’s out there has to go out and play to the standard.”