There is no doubt the Carolina Panthers have a playmaker in running back Christian McCaffrey.
Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, the team used him in just about every way imaginable – as a receiver, a running back, a punt returner and even as the recipient of a direct snap in the Wildcat formation.
The Panthers ran 67 offensive plays in their 23-3 victory over the 49ers, and McCaffrey was on the field for 47 of them. He finished with five receptions on seven targets from quarterback Cam Newton for 38 yards, and rushed for 47 yards on 13 carries.
Power back Jonathan Stewart was on the field for 29 plays and carried the ball 18 times for 65 yards. He also caught two passes on two targets for 17 yards, including a touchdown on a slick little screen.
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So in terms of offensive touches, Stewart and McCaffrey were pretty even.
But after from those two, there was a huge dropoff in offensive distribution.
“When you have guys who have talent and can help you move the football, well, there’s only one ball,” said offensive coordinator Mike Shula on Monday afternoon. “There are only a certain amount of plays. Yesterday was a good example.”
Head coach Ron Rivera pointed out Monday that Newton targeted eight different receivers, but that was with limited effectiveness.
▪ Tight end Greg Olsen – Newton’s favorite target for three years and more than 3,000 yards – was on the field for every offensive snap but targeted just four times – for two catches and 18 yards.
▪ Kelvin Benjamin was on the field for 43 snaps and targeted five times, with one catch for 25 yards.
▪ Devin Funchess was on the field for 45 snaps and had two catches on two targets for 20 yards.
▪ Russell Shepard was targeted twice with great production – he had two catches and scored a 40-yard touchdown.
▪ Second-round pick Curtis Samuel was only on the field for 12 snaps, and Damiere Byrd was targeted once in 19 snaps.
“I think I’d like to see a little more mix of the wide receivers, just because of who we have,” said Rivera. “I think Curtis Samuel probably could have gotten a few more snaps, and probably Damiere Byrd.”
Both weapon and decoy
And the ultimate goal, according to Rivera and Shula, is for the Panthers to utilize McCaffrey both as a weapon and as a “decoy” of sorts – a player who opponents will start to key in on as the game unfolds, leaving other targets with more room to make plays.
“We talked a lot in the offseason about teams trying to take away Greg and Kelvin, so if they do that, then we feel like (Christian) could be a guy who gets some matchups underneath in the shorter areas,” Shula said Monday. “Or if teams are dropping soft zone we can get him the ball in space.”
If teams try to eliminate McCaffrey as a threat, the opportunity to get the ball to Olsen, Funchess and Benjamin should emerge. Shula pointed to Olsen’s 17-yard gain in the third quarter, during which San Francisco showed a soft zone to handle McCaffrey. The linebackers squared up against the underneath option as McCaffrey came out of the backfield instead of sinking back to eliminate Olsen. And Newton found Olsen.
Shula singled out that play, along with a handful of others made by some seldom-targeted players.
“I really want to point this out because I think it’s important for those guys to hear, maybe through you, I mean they’re going to hear it through me: Across the board, there was guys that stepped up and made plays when we needed them to,” he said. “Now, did we have big numbers? Did any of them have big numbers? No.
“But we talked about that throw to Greg – and we didn’t get the touchdown, but it got us into field goal range. We talk about that throw to Kelvin right before in the two-minute drive to get us points. Christian had the big screen play. Cam scrambled on third down on the touchdown drive. Funchess on the little short (route) where he knows he’s going to get hit, makes the tough catch and takes the hit, gets us going on a drive. Stewart on the screen pass for the touchdown.
“Those were all kind of guys taking turns when their number was called and making a play.”
A work in progress
Finding a balance in targets will take time, and will often depend on what opposing defenses show the Panthers and how Newton’s surgically repaired shoulder progresses. A few of the missed targets were, in part, quarterback error as Newton struggled with his timing and accuracy in the first half.
But for guys such as Olsen and Benjamin, not much time can be wasted to get the numbers they need. Benjamin is playing for a long-term contract after his fifth-year option was picked up this spring. Olsen’s contract was just restructured to allow him the opportunity to make up to $2 million in incentives for hitting a fourth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season, among other stipulations regarding receptions, yards-per-catch and receiving yards.
Still, Shula indicated that blanket production will come as the offense matures. In the meantime, it’s winning football games that matters.
“Whatever it takes to win,” he said. “That’s the other thing we talked to our guys about. One week it might be this guy, or this style. It might be throwing the ball a lot more. ... We just talk about one week, finding a way whatever it takes to win a football game.”