Christian McCaffrey Primed to Breakout Against Saints [Film Study]

Embed from Getty Images

Fickle. We can all be it. After two weeks without a touchdown or really an impact in the running game, murmurs of dissatisfaction with Christian McCaffrey’s effectiveness and Mike Shula’s use of him have crept into the dialogue. Despite Carolina’s 2-0 start, McCaffrey’s impact has been marginal. In his debut, McCaffrey’s presence was felt more in the opportunities he created for others than in direct production. Carolina forced his involvement early and often with limited returns. In Week 2, McCaffrey was held to 10 yards rushing and 34 receiving with the most memorable play being a missed touchdown opportunity because of a terrible through by Cam Newton. Murmurs of McCaffrey’s effectiveness haven’t been hushed as Kareem Hunt has burst onto the stage in Kansas City and Dalvin Cook has steadily produced in Minnesota. There’s a prime opportunity Sunday as the Panthers host the struggling New Orleans Saints for McCaffrey to turn those murmurs into cheers and show the NFL what we know about his ability but have only yet to see in the regular season.

The Saints defense has been bad. This past week, Tom Brady put up career stats against the Saints with Gronk and a couple of running backs deployed in the passing game.  New England only fielded three receivers Sunday, mainly because injuries are dropping them like flies. That didn't stop Brady from carving New Orleans up to the tune of 436 yards in the air. Running backs accounted for 137 yards of that passing attack, and when James White and Rex Burkhead weren't punishing the Saints in the passing attack, Mike Gillislee was bludgeoning of the ground. Running backs accounted for 42% of the Patriots offensive production against the Saints.

New England integrated a lot of concepts that involved running backs lined up at wide receiver matching against a cornerback in space. Panthers Defensive Coordinator, Steve Wilks, recently remarked, "This league is all about I’m going to crack support and my running back, 25 Shady McCoy, is better than your cornerback." New England executed that strategy throughout the game against the Saints.

Here, Deon Lewis lines up as the single wideout on the right. The corner is playing eight yards off of Lewis and is so concerned with getting beat deep, Lewis gets an easy gain on a stop route. 

Lewis in Space.gif

Bill Belichick used a lot of misdirection to expose a young defense. Here, Chris Hogan fakes the end around and then Brady dumps the ball to the wide receiver underneath. Faking to the back, then to the wide receiver, then passing it back the running back has these corners twisted all around.

End Around Fake White.gif

New England faked several variations of the Jet Sweep throughout the game to get the corners and linebackers to bite on the wide receiver handoff where Brady then found a running back coming out of the backfield. Here, Brady is lined up in the shotgun with and fakes the handoff to Brandin Cooks. It enough to get AJ Klein to bite down for a moment while James White runs a wheel route out of the backfield for a monster gain. 

Jet Sweep Fake.gif

Here they run the same play again with Burkhead who flashes towards the sideline and then turn the screen pass upfield for another huge gain. 

Burkhead fake sweep.gif

There has been plenty of talk about how Panthers’ Offensive Coordinator, Mike Shula, hasn’t been inventive enough with the use of Christian McCaffrey. Based on what the Patriots did with their running backs, none who are as dynamic as McCaffrey, Shula could simply try to mimic some these play designs. It would likely require getting Curtis Samuel involved in some of this misdirection, which we’ve all expected and been clamoring for. The blueprint is there and McCaffrey has a real opportunity to do the damage we’ve been expecting in these opening games. New Orleans will clearly be studying up on what the Patriots exposed over and over. They’ll have to execute or else McCaffery will likely have a monster day.

By Tony Dunn
Follow @Cat_Chronicles for the latest Panthers news and opinions from the fan perspective.