To un­lock Pan­thers pass­ing at­tack, start with the ba­sics: Run CMC

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY BREN­DAN MARKS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com Bren­dan Marks: 704-358-5889, @bren­dan­r­marks

Each week the Carolina Pan­thers play in 2018, the Ob­server will choose a po­ten­tial game changer — the player most likely to make a huge im­pact on the game. This week’s choice: Run­ning back Chris­tian McCaf­frey

The con­text: For all the talk about Carolina’s deep pass­ing at­tack — or lack thereof — or turnovers or in­con­sis­tency, there’s one easy way for this Pan­thers of­fense to sta­bi­lize it­self. To self-cor­rect, if you will: Run CMC. McCaf­frey, the team’s first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, was brought in to be a do-ev­ery­thing threat: to run, to catch passes out of the back­field (and in­creas­ingly down the field), and to break games open on spe­cial teams.

Prob­lem is, he can’t do any of that with­out the ball in his hands.

What Norv Turner says: “Ev­ery game is dif­fer­ent, and we’re try­ing to use all our guys,” of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Norv Turner said, “and Chris­tian is get­ting a lot of at­tempts right now.”

The statis­tics: Of any­one on this of­fense, which fea­tures six dif­fer­ent play­ers with at least 10 re­cep­tions, McCaf­frey gets the most con­sis­tent us­age. He’s had at least 15 touches in each of the Pan­thers’ first five games, both as Cam New­ton’s safety out­let on pass plays and run­ning be­tween the tack­les.

So how can some­one so heav­ily re­lied on still be a break­out can­di­date against the Ea­gles this week?

Be­cause for as good as McCaf­frey has been, he still isn’t be­ing used reg­u­larly enough.

In Carolina’s two losses this year, McCaf­frey had eight rushes in each game, for 37 and 20 yards, re­spec­tively. That’s just not enough true rushes to keep a de­fense hon­est. Of course, ingame cir­cum­stances can dic­tate chang­ing game plans, as coach Ron Rivera said this week. What Ron Rivera says: “I think a big part of it again is, are you win­ning the bat­tle up front?” Rivera said of try­ing to estab­lish the run con­sis­tently. “Sec­ondly is, what else is work­ing? Do you have a lead, how ef­fec­tive is your pass­ing game? Is it open­ing up cer­tain av­enues? There’s a lot of things we try to con­sider.

“Last week, the big thing that came into play ob­vi­ously was be­ing in the hole early.”

Why he mat­ters: Be­ing be­hind nat­u­rally makes teams less in- clined to run. That makes per­fect sense. But con­versely, don’t suc­cess­ful early runs pre­vent you from get­ting be­hind so badly?

And then there’s the mat­ter of the team’s ver­ti­cal pass­ing at­tack. New­ton has only com­pleted one pass of more than 20 yards down­field all sea­son — last week’s deep touch­down to Devin Funchess.

But again, dou­bling down on McCaf­frey can help open up some of those shots. If de­fenses have to stay ded­i­cated to the run, it opens up play-ac­tion pass op­por­tu­ni­ties for New­ton and Carolina’s sta­ble of re­ceivers. Solv­ing an is­sue: Turner has hes­i­tated to use the word ‘de­coy’ when re­fer­ring to McCaf­frey in the past, but if it works, well ... hard to say no to the idea.

“Chris­tian’s a big part of what we’re do­ing,” Turner said, “but we have a lot of guys who can make plays when we need it.”

The point is, McCaf­frey’s proven abil­ity to run be­tween the tack­les must be a con­stant in this Carolina of­fense. He forces de­fenses not to sit back in their zones, and to truly at­tack the line of scrim­mage.

Maybe the an­swer to Carolina’s deep-ball de­fi­cien­cies aren’t lu­di­crous shots down the field, af­ter all.

Maybe they’re just get­ting back to ba­sics — get­ting back to Run CMC.

DAVID T. FOSTER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Carolina Pan­thers run­ning back Chris­tian McCaf­frey (22) shakes off New York Gi­ants free safety Cur­tis Ri­ley (35) in the sec­ond half at Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium on Sun­day, Oc­to­ber 7, 2018.

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