When Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey was in college at Stanford, he estimates he watched every single run made by Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy.
He wanted to style his game to be similar to the shifty, lightning-fast “Shady” McCoy, who, since he entered the league in 2009, has rushed for almost 10,000 yards and caught the ball for almost 3,000.
McCaffrey and McCoy sometimes draw comparisons because of their line-up-anywhere playmaking ability, and their talent for making matchups miss.
But McCaffrey is still a largely unproven rookie. So despite getting in “McCoy-esque” repetitions while defending McCaffrey throughout the spring, training camp and the preseason, Carolina’s linebackers will have their hands full with the wily veteran experience and skillset of McCoy this weekend.
“He’s shifty, he’s a guy that’s going one way one second and then the next second he’s going the other way,” said Luke Kuechly. “It’s fun to watch, it’s fun to play against. But angles are important this week and understanding that he’s not like a normal running back that needs a second to change direction. He’s kind of changing direction right now. And that’s unique.”
McCoy has 27 touches last week in Buffalo’s victory against the Jets, for a total of 159 yards.
In fact, the skew of McCoy’s touches – 22 carries and five catches on six targets, with routes run out of the slot, backfield and on the outside – compared to the rest of his team’s looked very similar to McCaffrey’s (13 carries and five catches on seven targets).
San Francisco’s linebackers defended McCaffrey well in the first quarter last week in a soft zone scheme that also relied on the speed of talented cover linebacker Reuben Foster to key in on McCaffrey within the zone formatting (Foster left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury). McCaffrey had just nine net yards on three offensive touches by the end of the first quarter.
Carolina’s linebackers are among the NFL’s most talented in coverage, so their attempts to limit McCoy will be exciting to watch. Limiting McCoy’s ability to operate in space will be key for the trio of Kuechly, Thomas Davis and hybrid linebacker Shaq Thompson.