On Sunday Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey scored his first touchdown in the National Football League. The delay was a bit surprising considering McCaffrey’s unique abilities in the run, pass and return game, but nonetheless the Stanford product has finally scored.
Prior to Week 5, McCaffrey had been limited in the Panthers offense as a runner. He only rushed 31 times for 89 yards – an average of 2.9 yards per carry. However, he’s had more success in the passing game catching 22 passes for 206 yards – 9.4 yards per reception.
Despite the slow start to the season for Carolina’s offense, Sunday provided a glimpse into what we expected when the Panthers selected McCaffrey eighth overall. Conflict. In particular, conflict for opposing defenses.
Creating conflict is targeting a defensive player who has multiple responsibilities on a given play. That player may have to pick a player to defend or commit to the run/pass and when they do the quarterback has to make the right read to ensure the play is successful. These plays are designed with the premise that the defender cannot be right in a 2 on 1 situation. There’s probably no better quarterback in the NFL who creates conflict for opposing defenses like Cam Newton.
The pairing of Newton and McCaffrey in the backfield provides the perfect blend of power and finesse running styles. Newton’s power running ability to get the tough yards compliments McCaffrey’s smooth quick cuts and burst while hitting the hole for large gains. One way offensive coordinator Mike Shula and the Panthers utilized McCaffrey to create conflict on Sunday was in the option game. Having another weapon in Carolina’s option plays helps take hits away from Newton while also keeping the defense honest.
Newton motions WR Curtis Samuel (#10) who runs across the backfield on a Jet Sweep, but Newton fakes the handoff and runs the option play to the left side of the formation. This causes the linebackers to slightly flow to the right – opposite of the playside. Newton carries the ball with his running back Jonathan Stewart (#28) to his left to receive the pitch and McCaffrey cutting across the backfield with OG Trai Turner (#70) pulling from the backside.
This puts LB Tahir Whitehead (#59) in conflict on the play. He has to decide whether to stay committed to Newton or defend the run. Yet, he also must keep an eye on McCaffrey cutting to the playside, but McCaffrey does a good job of deceiving the defense by hiding behind his linemen before the play fully develops. Newton has his eyes on S Tavon Wilson (#32) to begin the play reading whether or not he can pitch the option to his running back. When he decides that option is defended he turns his attention to Whitehead to read the linebacker’s movement and decide whether to keep or toss the shovel pass to McCaffrey. The Lions are in a good position to defend both pitch and quarterback run by keeping Newton in front of them. However, the defense does not have anyone defending McCaffrey and Newton is able to get the conflict defender, Whitehead, to come outside just enough to toss the rookie the shovel pass for the touchdown.
This was a great call by Mike Shula down in the red zone and it was executed to perfection by the Panthers offense. Having to defend both Newton and McCaffrey on a single play is a difficult assignment for any defender as they possess power, finesse, and athletic ability running the ball. Option plays like this increase the Panthers’ opportunity of success as majority of the time defenses can’t defend and react fast enough to Newton’s decision to pitch, keep, or toss.
McCaffrey finished with five carries for seven yards and caught five passes for 31 yards and a touchdown. The Panthers are going to need more out of him moving forward, but he’s making an impact despite his lackluster numbers thus far. Defenses are going to be put into more conflict situations defending Newton and McCaffrey as the season moves along. The Panthers are 4-1 and are starting to hit their stride offensively putting up 33 and 27 points in back to back wins against the New England Patriots and Lions on the road.