LONDON – When Christian McCaffrey popped up on the injury report with a back injury this week, the same punchline was used over and over again on social media.
“Back must be sore from carrying the offense,” or something along those lines.
But football is truly a team game, even if you’ve got a leading MVP candidate at running back.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who allow fewer yards per rush than any team in the league, once again made it tough on McCaffrey. He finished with 22 carries for just 31 yards – a stunning 1.4-yard average.
But the Panthers claimed a 37-18 victory over their NFC South rivals at Tottenham Stadium anyway.
“I keep saying it,” quarterback Kyle Allen said. “We’re a complete team all around.
“Now don’t forget Christian still had two touchdowns. He may not have a had a lot of rushing yards, but he still had a huge impact on this game.”
That’s a good point.
McCaffrey scored the game’s first touchdown with a hard-earned 1-yard plunge in the first quarter, reaching the ball across the goal line as he was on top of a bunch of bodies.
“That was tough one yard. His second effort is the reason we scored there,” tight end Greg Olsen said.
And then McCaffrey found the end zone again in the second quarter, slipping out of the backfield and catching a pass in the flat before breaking cornerback Vernon Hargreaves II’s ankles and stiff-arming rookie linebacker Devin White on his way to the end zone for a 25-yard score.
“You can always count on Christian to do something amazing,” rookie edge rusher Brian Burns said.
But after that, the Bucs effectively shut down McCaffrey. They were all over him at every turn. And they put a lot of defenders near the line of scrimmage to make that possible.
“Christian is dominating the league so well right now, teams are going to stack the box. That creates opportunities for all of us,” wide receiver Curtis Samuel said. “We’re getting one-on-ones, and we’re too athletic for teams to line up like that. I feel like I’m going to win those battles all the time.”
Samuel scored the next two touchdowns for Carolina. He took a speed sweep for an 8-yard score in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter, he made a crazy contested catch on a misplaced back-shoulder throw from Allen for a 13-yard touchdown.
“He got so much separation so fast, I tried to speed it up and get it to him and I left it inside,” Allen said, “and he just ripped it away.”
Samuel finished with four catches for 70 yards, wide receiver DJ Moore finished with seven catches for 73 yards and Olsen added four catches for 52 yards at tight end.
“It just shows how many playmakers we have on this team. And at any given moment, somebody can make a big play,” Moore said.
And that was hugely important on a day when the Buccaneers didn’t allow Carolina to rely on the run game.
“We had a lot of guys contribute,” Olsen said. “Today, a lot of guys took turns making plays. Our run game was tough sledding. It was like hitting your head against a wall.”
“They have a tough run defense,” Allen added. “You saw it. We tried to run the ball. That’s a tough defense, man. We took to the pass today and made plays when they needed to be made.”
It was on Allen and the passing game to consistently move the ball against the Bucs, and the backup whose now won all four starts this season came through.
Allen completed 20-of-32 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 104.6.
And remember that 1-yard touchdown run by McCaffrey in the opening quarter? That capped a 99-yard drive in which Allen hit all five pass attempts for 68 yards.
“He’s done what he’s paid to do,” Olsen said of his quarterback. “Move the offense, be efficient, make the plays that are available.
“First and foremost, to be honest with ourselves, our defense was huge. Seven sacks and six turnovers put us in a lot of good positions offensively.”
Ah, yes. That defense.
Let’s repeat those numbers. Seven sacks, and actually, seven takeaways, too (five interceptions, one strip-sack and one fumbled punt recovery). The Panthers started five possessions inside Tampa Bay territory thanks to all that.
“Kyle is building confidence and we all have confidence in him. We want to make it easier for him by playing great ball as well,” safety Tre Boston said. “I know we had a few turnovers on their side of the 50. We want to help those guys as much as we can.”
With a defense making that many plays and a quarterback confidently spreading the ball, the Panthers didn’t need another 200 scrimmage yards from Christian McCaffrey.
The Bucs made somebody other than McCaffrey beat them, and they were the ones who got beat.
“Christian wasn't going to beat them, that's fine,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “The other guys around him were able to make plays.”