Are the Lions for real? Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers look at the Lions as they roll into Week 5 against the Carolina Panthers at Ford Field. Detroit News
Allen Park — Lions coach Jim Caldwell vividly remembers the 2016 Rose Bowl between Stanford and Iowa.
Caldwell, an Iowa alumnus, could only helplessly watch as Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey gashed the Hawkeyes’ defense for 277 yards from scrimmage (172 rushing, 105 receiving) and two total touchdowns in a 45-16 blowout victory.
While it’s a different league and a different time, containing the Panthers rookie running back will be high on the Lions’ priority list come Sunday in a battle between two 3-1 teams.
“He can do a little bit of everything. They’ve had him in a little bit of a wildcat and you name it, he can do it,” Caldwell said Wednesday before practice. “A couple years ago when they (Stanford) were in the bowl game against Iowa, I was going to watch my old team play well and first time he touched the ball, I think he took it about 75, 85 yards, whatever it was. And he had an unbelievable first half. So, tremendous capabilities in terms of his quickness, his speed, and obviously he’s a triple threat.”
McCaffrey, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, hasn’t made much of an impact in Carolina’s run game, averaging a pedestrian 22.3 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry.
Rather, his ability as a route runner and his pass-catching prowess out of the backfield have helped take the pressure off bruiser Jonathan Stewart and open up the play-action game for quarterback Cam Newton.
Through four games, McCaffrey has a 75.9 catch percentage and is averaging 9.4 yards per reception. He leads the Panthers with 22 receptions — highlighted by his nine-catch, 101-yard performance against the Saints in Week 3 — and has emerged as Newton’s favorite target with tight end Greg Olsen on injured reserve with a broken foot.
“I think a big part of it is really, just all of the different things that he does do for us more so than just potentially in the run game,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in a conference call with reporters. “We motion him all over the place, we shift him all over the place, and I think just the fact that we’re trying to put the ball in his hands has really gotten the defenses aware as to where he is, and that’s been to our benefit.
“He’s got tremendous hands, he’s a good route runner, he understands how to attack coverages. His versatility is probably one of his biggest strengths.”
McCaffrey’s Swiss Army knife role has also led to him spending time as the return man this year, where he’s averaging 5.9 yards per punt return with a long of 13 yards, 19.3 yards per kick return with a long of 21 and 104.5 all-purpose yards per game.
While Rivera noted he’s trying not to overuse and overexpose McCaffrey, he said his team tries to exploit his abilities in the offense much like the Lions do with running back Theo Riddick.
It’s a comparison safety Glover Quin echoed — and faces on a daily basis at practice — as Detroit’s defense braces for a promising rookie running back for the second straight week.
“The way (McCaffrey) can catch the ball out the backfield, the way he can make guys miss after the catch, the way he can run routes underneath, the way he can run the ball, it’s very unique,” Quin said. “We have running backs on our team that are pretty similar in Theo and Ameer (Abdullah). Both guys are smaller, shiftier guys that can run the ball and are good receivers out the backfield. He’ll definitely be a challenge.”