Cue the cliche football phrase: Next man up.
That’s exactly how the Panthers and Mike Davis have approached the running back position in 2020. As we all know, All-Pro back Christian McCaffrey was sidelined with an ankle injury from Week 3 - Week 8 and will now miss the Week 10 matchup with the Bucs due to a shoulder injury.
That’s good news for Bucs fans, however, it’s not great news. Actually, now that I think about it, by this point it’s “meh” news, at best.
And that’s because backup running back Mike Davis has done a very good job running the ball and catching the ball —both things that CMC does well— in McCaffrey’s stead. On top of that, the Panthers know how to use the sixth-year veteran just like they know how to use McCaffrey.
Now let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. McCaffrey’s absence is a big deal. He is arguably the best running back in the NFL and is an expert at finding the hidden yards on runs. But if you’re the Bucs, you can’t take a breath when Davis is in the lineup.
“I don’t think it changes much,” Bruce Arians told reporters when asked about how/if the defensive approach changes with McCaffrey out. “[Mike] Davis is doing a heck of a job running the football. We’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
It all starts with Davis’ ability to break tackles and create yards after contact. He is currently third in the NFL with 3.0 yards after contact per attempt, tied for the fifth-most broken tackles (14), and leads the league in broken tackles per attempt (6.1).
Matt Rhule said it perfectly after the team’s Week 5 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
“I think [Davis is] running it with tremendous physicality,” Rhule said postgame. “He’s not getting tackled by the first tackler. I think we’ve found some runs that he feels really comfortable with. And it’s great second effort, great yards after contact. And that’s the mark of a good back. He’s also doing a good job catching the football. Great situation awareness, getting down, not going out of bounds at the end of the game. Mike’s a pro and he’s playing like it.”
As the Panthers’ starter from Week 3-8, he ran for the 10th-most yards (349 yards on 83 carries) and had the 14th-best yards per carry mark (4.2) among running backs with at least 47 carries.
Per Next Gen Stats, Davis is ninth in RYOE/att and 12th in total RYOE. Those two metrics (the acronyms stand for rush yards over expected per attempt and rush yards over expected) show the efficiency of a runner and in Davis’ case, can reflect an ability to create yards after contact. Like CMC, Davis can find the extra yards. This was on full display in Week 4 against Cardinals, where Davis finished second among all backs in total RYOE and third in RYOE/att. Oh, and he just so happened to face the most eight-man boxes that game, as well.
But you can argue that Davis’ biggest impact has come through the passing game. We all know how many balls CMC catches in a year, so it’s clear that running backs are a vital part of the Panthers’ passing game (and offense). Davis recorded the sixth-most receiving yards (170) and tied for the second-most receiving touchdowns (2) on the second-most receptions (30) and second-most targets (35) among all running backs with at least 15 targets. He also showed off his good hands, finishing with the fourth-highest catch percentage.*
That’s a major credit to not only Davis, but to Rhule and Joe Brady, too. They’ve done an excellent job of using Davis and maximizing his abilities.
The good news it that the Bucs’ run defense is still a strong unit; even if it has shown some cracks over the last couple of weeks. The Bucs are also the fourth-most efficient team in the NFL when defending running backs in the passing game, per Football Outsiders. So, Tampa Bay has what it takes to corral Davis, but we obviously won’t know if that happens until Sunday.
And at the end of the day, Davis’ play is a perfect example of why good depth is so important in this league. You never know when a player will go down and sometimes it’s just a matter of time before it happens.
The Bucs need to be ready for Davis on Sunday. Because it could be long day if they aren’t.