After many long months of waiting the 2018 NFL regular season is finally here. And with it, for the Dallas Cowboys, comes the season opener against the Carolina Panthers.
Unlike the Cowboys the Panthers were a playoff team in 2017, and much of their success can obviously be attributed to their former MVP quarterback Cam Newton. It’s the other member of Carolina’s backfield, however, which may be giving defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli the biggest headaches during preparation this week.
Now second year running back Christian McCaffrey is coming off of a rookie season in which he accounted for over 1,000 yards and 7 touchdowns. Entering 2018 most expect McCaffrey to play an even larger role in the Panthers offense, though, as indicated by his average draft position during fantasy football drafts.
McCaffrey presents the “dual threat” running back skill set which offenses are valuing greatly as of late, and a season in which he catches 80 balls and tallies close to 300 touches is not out of the question. Although the Panthers did draft Maryland wide receiver DJ Moore, and still have Greg Olsen as their starting tight end, Christian McCaffrey will most likely be their most dynamic offensive weapon moving forward.
One of the more common ways the Panthers like to use McCaffrey is as a receiver out of the backfield. While they do often throw him the ball on swing routes and screen passes, his route running ability allows Carolina to get more creative than that.
Against Green Bay here we see McCaffrey on an option route, something Carolina loves to use in the red zone. With quick feet, fluid hips, and impressive acceleration McCaffrey is often able to shake opposing linebackers and defensive backs in man coverage.
Green Bay simply loses McCaffrey here, allowing for the easy touchdown, but he does have the ability to beat tight coverage when necessary.
On this particular play, the Panthers motion their receiver inside the numbers, nearly stacking him with the tight end in the slot. They then run that receiver on a crossing route and ask their tight end to pick off the defenders.
While Green Bay adjusts to defend the crosser, McCaffrey is allowed to run free for the score. Dallas will have to stay disciplined in coverage on Sunday and look to avoid these pick routes in the red zone. Easier said than done, of course.
The Panthers are not afraid to use Christian McCaffrey as a traditional receiver either. Putting Cam Newton in an empty backfield with McCaffrey in the slot gives Carolina a ton of different options offensively, and could create issues for any defense.
Here we see McCaffrey win on the boundary with an out-and-up route on a modified scissors concept. Once again we see McCaffrey’s quick feet and acceleration, as he breaks down the defensive back and works his way up the field.
After winning against man coverage, McCaffrey shows off his pass catching ability to create a big play for the Panthers. Any time you try to cover McCaffrey in man, it’s going to be a tough ask.
The creativity with Christian McCaffrey doesn’t stop with the pass game, however. Considering how big and physical quarterback Cam Newton is, the Panthers are able to execute option and “college” plays in the red zone.
Here we see McCaffrey in the slot with Newton and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield. Carolina brings a receiver in jet motion across the formation, giving Newton the option to give on the jet. It appears the motion is a designed fake here, but that option still must be respected by the linebackers.
Carolina then shows a traditional option look with Newton and Stewart, but they also bring McCaffrey across the formation as a shovel option. All this motion confuses the Lions defense, and allows for a walk-in touchdown from McCaffrey.
Once again, the Cowboys must stay disciplined on Sunday and read their keys if they hope to contain McCaffrey.
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys’ linebackers this offseason, with Jaylon Smith looking healthy and a first round pick in Leighton Vander Esch being added to the unit. They’re going to face a huge test in the season opener, however, as Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey look to create big plays out of the backfield on Sunday.
Carolina doesn’t have the dangerous receiving weapons on the boundary, but they’re ability to utilize option routes, zone read plays, and creativity in the run game can cause problems for this Cowboys defense.