Bucs look to solve Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey with 3-4 defense

The third-year 'iron maní punishes opponents with a versatile effort. How will Tampa Bay respond?
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) reacts following a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) Mike McCarn  |  AP
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) reacts following a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) Mike McCarn | AP
Published September 11
Updated September 11

TAMPA — Christian McCaffrey played 100 percent of the Panthers’ 67 offensive snaps against the Rams last Sunday. He ran and caught the football for 209 yards from scrimmage.

It’s absurd for a player to endure this punishment. Once in a while, you need to catch your breath. It’s exhaustive. It’s unfair.

Not to McCaffrey. To opposing defenses.

"It's tough to take him out," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of McCaffrey's workload. “He doesn't want to come out. We have to think about certain things, but when he's playing the way he is you've got to keep the rhythm going.’’

McCaffrey, 23, is arguably the most complete running back in the NFL.

“He’s probably the best dual back in the league,’’ Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “I used to think it was David Johnson, but Christian has passed him up. As a receiver, he’s a hell of a matchup problem.’’

Over the next five weeks, the Bucs may be able know if Arians is right. They begin a stretch of games against McCaffrey, the Giants Saquon Barkley, the Rams Todd Gurley, the Saints Alvin Kamara and McCaffrey again.

Preventing McCaffrey from taking over Thursday night’s game in Charlotte may be the biggest key for the Bucs to avoid a 0-2 start to the 2019 season.

Not long ago, the Panthers were Cam Newton’s team. From a leadership standpoint, it still is. But a surgically repaired shoulder and an injured foot has started to whittle away at the effectiveness of the Panthers quarterback.

So in a 30-27 loss to the Rams, Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner rode McCaffrey to what was nearly a dramatic comeback victory.

McCaffrey rushed 19 times for 128 yards and two touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 81 yards. In fact, it was the third time in his career that McCaffrey has combined to rush for at least 100 yards and catch 10 passes, marking the most in the NFL since 1950.

“I think coach has got C-Mac up for fantasy this week,” Newton said of Turner. “He picked C-Mac for fantasy. I should have went over and seen who he was drafting in his league. That’s probably why we aren’t doing deep passes. He should pick me first quarterback.”

McCaffrey has had a habit of killing the Bucs. He had more than 150 yards of total offense in both games against Tampa Bay last season.

“He can do everything,’’ linebacker Lavonte David said. “He can run the ball between the tackles. Outside. He can catch the ball, deep, short. Make plays. You’ve got to put the ball in play makers hands. And they’ve got play makers. They’ve got some young receivers, they’ve got (tight end) Greg Olson and obviously they’ve got Christian McCaffrey. Anytime the ball is in his hands, he’s dangerous. He’s definitely somebody we’ll be circling. It’s got to be a whole team effort. Gang tackling. Getting guys to the ball and trying to eliminate him as best as we can.’’

Enter Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who may have a better plan. Bowles’ 3-4 scheme is anchored inside by defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea.

Last Sunday in a 31-17 loss to the 49ers, the Bucs allowed only 98 yards rushing on 32 attempts, a respectable 3.1 yard average.

Aside from the Bucs big defensive tackles, the addition of linebacker Devin White could become McCaffrey’s kryptonite.

White, who runs a 4.4 40-yard dash at about 230-pounds, could be the perfect player to stop McCaffrey, particularly in the running game. He played running back in high school and figures he’s just as good of an athlete as the running back on the other side of the ball.

In his NFL debut Sunday, White played through tonsillitis to record six tackles.

“I think I’ve got the same amount of will they’ve got,’’ White said of facing the league’s top backs.

Perhaps, but don’t expect White to shadow McCaffrey the entire game. As a receiver, McCaffrey can’t be adequately covered by a linebacker. So Bowles could use a safety to shadow him if McCaffrey lines up as a receiver pre-snap.

“I mean, he creates a lot of problems,’’ Bowles said. “He had about 200 total yards (Sunday), and 300 and something yards of offense. Again, not just running the ball, but catching the ball as well. He’s a great route runner, he’s got great hands. He’s probably one of the best all-around backs in the game right now.

“I don’t think you can stop him with one guy. Sometimes, not even two. And he’s not the only guy they have. They’re very talented across the board. So we’ve just got to play disciplined football.’’

The Bucs split with Carolina a year ago, winning at Raymond James Stadium. In that game, safety Andrew Adams played sort of a third down linebacker and recorded three of his interceptions against Newton. Adams re-signed with the Bucs this week.

“I think one of my assignments against Carolina was to cover McCaffrey,’’ Adams said. “I think what I could say is you’re going to have to watch basically all his routes. Because if you go out there and you don’t have a clue what that route may be? Then you’ve already lost.’’

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