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How Christian McCaffrey helped create plays for others


CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers didn't use a top-10 pick on Christian McCaffrey only to keep him in a box. They certainly weren't shy about unwrapping their shiny, new weapon Sunday in Santa Clara.

McCaffrey was on the field for 47 of 67 possible snaps against the 49ers, more than anyone outside of the offensive line, quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen – a group that almost always stays on the field the entire game.

As expected, the Panthers lined up McCaffrey in the backfield, in the slot, out wide and in the wildcat. And they gave him the ball. A lot.

Midway through the second quarter, the distribution of touches looked like this:

  • McCaffrey - 10
  • Jonathan Stewart - 6
  • Russell Shepard, Devin Funchess, Fozzy Whittaker - 1
  • Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin, Curtis Samuel - 0

Including McCaffrey's three punt returns, the rookie led the Panthers with 92 all-purpose yards on 21 touches.

"It's like getting a new toy at Christmas. You open up the box, it's what you hoped for," head coach Ron Rivera said Monday before assuring he's read the WARNING label.

"But you've also got to be wise and smart about when you play with it and when you don't because you don't want to wear the batteries out. You don't want to break it. You want to utilize it and have fun with it."

McCaffrey will obviously continue to be a big part of the offense, but it's unlikely guys like Olsen and Benjamin will consistently finish games with just three combined receptions. And as Olsen said afterward, "The run game still goes through Stew."

The Panthers hope to get McCaffrey more than a dozen touches per game, but they've also constantly reminded how much he could open things up for others.

Let's take a look at two examples from Sunday.

Set up with a first-and-goal from the 49ers' 9-yard line early in the second half, the Panthers put McCaffrey in the backfield with Stewart:

"(McCaffrey) goes one way, and Jonathan goes the other way," Rivera said, "the next thing you know is Jonathan's got the ball and he dives over the pile for a touchdown.

"Those are the types of things (McCaffrey) helps create for his teammates."

Which is exactly what FOX Sports analyst Chris Spielman pointed out on the telestrator:

Because the 49ers wanted to keep everything in front of them, they spent much of the day in a soft zone. That set up this:

"Christian came out of the backfield and the linebackers kind of squared up as opposed to continuing to drop deep to take Greg away," offensive coordinator Mike Shula explained.

Take another look at the space Olsen found:

So, yes, Shula's right when he says, "(McCaffrey's) just so fun to watch."

But he's also enormously important when the ball's not in his hands.

"He's just still scratching the surface," Shula continued. "He's a piece to the puzzle that we'll hopefully present each week that's going to help us offensively and help our football team win games."

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