The Buccaneer defense looked much improved in Sunday’s season-opening loss, but the unit will get a tougher test this Thursday night when it matches up against the division rival Panthers on the road.
You can praise quarterback Cam Newton all you want. He’s a stud in his own right. But he isn’t the star of that Carolina offense these days. No, the star of that group is third-year running back Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey — the pride of Castle Rock, Colorado — has quickly become one of the most complete running backs in the NFL. He’s great as a runner and possibly even more electric as a receiver. In Week 1, he torched the defending NFC champion Rams for 128 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries (6.7 YPC). For good measure, he added 10 catches (on 11 targets) for 81 yards.
McCaffrey is a nightmare for opposing defenses, and the Tampa Bay coaching staff knows it. Both head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles were asked Monday about the kind of challenges the 2017 first-round pick can present. Arians had this to say:
“He’s probably the best dual-back there is in the league right now. I used to think it was David Johnson, but Christian’s passed him up. As a receiver, he’s a hell of a match-up problem, and as a runner, he’s a great runner. They do a good job of having two backs in the game and you never know which one’s going anywhere and they have a lot of speed. You always have to be accountable for Cam [Newton] breaking down and making something happen on his own, so it’s always a tough offense to defend.”
Arians coached Johnson in Arizona and has had nothing but glowing things to say about him since, so for him to say McCaffrey has surpassed his former running back is high praise.
Bowles had more good things to say about the Stanford product and the challenge he poses:
“Major – he creates a lot of problems. He had about 200 total yards yesterday [himself in 343] yards of offense. Again, not just running the ball but catching the ball, as well. He is a great route runner, he has great hands [and] he is probably one of the best all-around backs in the game right now.”
Bowles, who faced McCaffrey in 2017 as head coach of the Jets, went on to say that he doesn’t think you can stop him with just one guy. Those who were with the Bucs last year know that all too well. McCaffrey’s stat lines in the two 2018 matchups were certainly problematic for Tampa Bay:
Nov. 4 (Panthers 42, Bucs 28): 17 rush, 79 yards, 2 TD, 4.6 AVG / 5 catches, 78 yards, 15.6 AVG
Dec. 2 (Bucs 24, Panthers 17): 10 rush, 106 yards, 10.6 AVG / 9 catches, 55 yards, TD, 6.1 AVG
The Bucs very clearly face a tall task Thursday night. The only consolation — if you can even call it that — is that the Carolina offense runs through McCaffrey. He’s as dynamic as they come, and if you find a way to shut him down or even contain him, you give yourself a good chance to win.