The Detroit Lions defense has a tall task this week. They will be forced to deal with the Panthers’ dynamic offense that features some of the league’s most versatile players. One of their most dangerous pieces is running back Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey was the ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft. The running back’s speed. agility and talent in open space made him one of the most interesting prospects coming out of Stanford. While his rookie season got off to slow start, he seems to be thriving in Year 2 in the Panthers’ new offense. He has over a 1,000 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns through nine games. His 54 receptions also lead the team.
The speed, agility and footwork McCaffrey he displayed at Stanford has clearly transferred to the NFL. He is a danger running outside and can punish teams if they give him a chance to turn the corner.
On this play against the Buccaneers, the running back takes the hand-off from quarterback Cam Newton on a stretch play. The first level of the Bucs defense actually does a great job here, but they still get beat. They set the edge and force McCaffrey all the way to the sideline. The majority of running backs would stumble out of bounds here for a short loss. McCaffrey, thought, manages to keep his footing, and turn up field. Once he is in open space, he truly shines. He shakes off two would-be tacklers that grab him unblocked and pulls a 30-yard gain out of nothing.
The running back’s open field abilities also translate very well into the passing game. Almost all of McCaffrey’s receptions this season have come on screens, swing passes or wheel routes. All of these are plays that can quickly get him the ball in space before defenders can grab him in coverage. Once he gets the ball is his hands and has himself pointing in the right direction, he is incredibly dangerous.
Carolina uses play action to set up the screen for McCaffrey on this play. Newton gets the ball to his back in open space, and there is not a defender within 10 yards of McCaffrey when he makes the catch. The running back does a great job setting up his blocks, but one of his blockers fails him. McCaffrey is able to athletically hurdle the would-be tackler and take off down field for a huge gain.
While the running back is incredibly slippery in the open field, the Panthers also do a great job creating room for him. Carolina’s offense features a variety of players getting the ball using short passes, screens or end arounds. No matter who seems to have the ball, the blocking is almost always great downfield. The offensive linemen are great at peeling off of their blocks to get to the second level. The wide receivers all know their blocking assignments and usually get the job done when tasked with blocking a corner downfield. There are not any “lazy” blockers on this team and everyone knows there job and gets it done. As a result everyone, including McCaffrey, benefits.
One knock against McCaffrey coming out of Stanford is that many believed he did not have what it takes to run between the tackles in the NFL. Many saw him as nothing more then an outside-the-tackles speedster who could not slug it out with the big bodies inside. He has quickly put those concerns to rest in Year 2, though.
Many of the running back’s 579 rushing yards this season have come from runs inside. While he’s not, and never will be, a physically imposing back that can brute force his way between the tackles, his mental skills make up for his lack of size. McCaffrey is a smart runner with great vision and patience in the backfield.
While McCaffrey did not bust this run against the Bucs for a huge gain, it is an impressive showing of what he can do. Carolina’s center is a little late pulling to the right edge to seal it and the running back has a defender in his face as he takes the hand-off. The lane he wanted to cut back into was occupied by a defender as well. The young running back did not panic, though. He almost comes to a complete stop, avoids the defender on the edge and sets up a second block once he spots the second defender. McCaffrey jukes back inside and finally has an open lane. He is quickly closed on by the linebackers for a 4-yard gain.
This patient running style that is more focused on what he can do with his eyes rather than his strength will really help him down the line. McCaffrey avoids a lot of big hits, preventing his body from being worn down. It also helps him make the most out of a play when the blocking fails him.
While he is listed as a running back, the Panthers line McCaffrey up all over their offense. He takes a lot of snaps out of the slot and even splits out wide sometimes. No matter where he is lined up, a majority of his reception come on the same curl, swing and wheel routes, but lining him up in unconventional spots does have some benefits.
If an opposing defense is in man coverage, motioning the running back out wide may put a linebacker into a position he is not comfortable with. It also makes him another threat on the end around plays that the Panthers so dearly love.
The running back is lined up in the slot on this play against the Steelers. He takes off pre-snap and grabs a hand-off from Newton, running towards the opposite flat. Pittsburgh does a great job sniffing the play out and stopping it for a short gain.
While the running back rarely gets used in these situations and has not been very successful so far this year at end around runs, it still adds another wrinkle into the Panthers play calling. If a team lets McCaffrey turn the corner on one of these plays, he could take off for a touchdown. Carolina often uses fake end arounds to create running room for Newton or to set up a quick pass or screen in the opposite direction. Defenses have to commit to stopping McCaffrey from beating them on the edge and that commitment can often cost them elsewhere.
What does this mean for the Lions?
Believe or not, I would not be surprised if the Lions find a way to contain McCaffrey.
Teams have had a lot of trouble running inside against the Lions since Damon Harrison Sr. arrived from the New York Giants. As smart and shifty as McCaffrey is, he does not have the strength to shove his way through the gaps that always seem to be stuffed.
Detroit should also be able to handle him when he motions out to the slot. Nickel Quandre Diggs has had some trouble this season when covering bigger tight ends and slot receivers but at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, the running back should not be able to overpower and outsize Detroit’s corner. Diggs may not be as fast as the running back but he does have decent agility and ball playing abilities.
Keeping him from beating the team on the edge will be a challenge, but it still is a manageable one. Diggs is an excellent run stopper when he has a chance to come flying in from the second level. As many mistakes as Nevin Lawson makes in coverage, he also contains runs well when he tasked to. Devon Kennard and Ezekiel Ansah—who will likely see an increased workload this week compared to last—are both great at setting the edge and containing the run. Jarrad Davis still makes occasional mistakes but he is slowly developing into a reliable sideline-to-sideline run stopper.
As many issues as this team has on defense at the moment, the limited strengths they do have seem to match up perfectly with what a team needs to do to stop a player like McCaffrey. They may not stop anyone else, but shutting the Panthers’ star running back down is a real possibility this week.