Christian McCaffrey hit the hole fast, reading the blocking in front of him to scoot into the end zone against the New Orleans Saints.
McCaffrey rushed for 72 yards on 24 carries and darted out of the backfield for five receptions for 65 yards during a 26-7 win.
It was a trademark performance from the Carolina Panthers’ versatile all-purpose running back heading into a Thursday night game against the Texans at NRG Stadium.
A former Pro Bowl selection and consensus All-American at Stanford, McCaffrey is capable of beating teams with his legs, hands and mind. He’s adept at setting up his blocks, eluding defenders in the open field and catching passes out of the backfield or split out as an extra wide receiver.
“He's a special player in his own right,” Texans defensive end Whitney Mercilus said of McCaffrey. “He's proven that time and time again. It's difficult to get him down. He's got good balance, good strength, as well, too, playing strength. It's going to be a challenge to bring him down.
“They create some good schemes for him to be able to get like seven-yard runs, 10-yard runs, things like that. We've got to be very disciplined in our gaps. We've got to be able to set edges, build walls and just do exactly what we're coached to do to stop them.”
McCaffrey leads the NFL with 324 yards from scrimmage and ranks sixth with 170 rushing yards on 45 carries and 10th in catches with 14 for 154 yards. He’s currently on pace for 2,754 yards of total offense and became the third player in NFL history in 2019 to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.
“He's one of the best players in our league, can do it all,” Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. “Of course, he's tough duty. As a receiver when he's catching the football, whether out of the backfield, splitting him out as a wide receiver, they do a great job of putting him in different spots getting the ball to him.
“But he's a running back and, of course, he can make you miss in the open field, run in between the tackles. I'm telling you all the things he does well, but how do you stop a guy? Well, it's still going to go back to first off being sound and disciplined. You can't make a mistake, you have to have somebody in every gap, gang tackle, pursue to the football, all of those things gives you the best chance to slow him down a little bit. Not many people are going to stop him completely.”
The Texans had some breakdowns defensively during a 31-21 loss Sunday to the Cleveland Browns, allowing 156 rushing yards and three touchdown runs. Running back Nick Chubb gained 95 yards and iced the game in the fourth quarter with a 26-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was only sacked and hit twice. The Texans also missed plenty of tackles.
While the Texans continue to force turnovers at a high rate with five turnovers in two games, they’ve only generated three sacks and six quarterback hits as the pass rush has been disappointing. Changes could be coming to the defensive line starting lineup and rotation starting Thursday against Carolina.
The tackling is something that Smith wants to see improve, starting this game against McCaffrey.
“We address tackling every day we go on the football field,” Smith said. “Just some days you miss tackles, it's no more than that. It's not like we haven't been preaching it, haven't been working on tackling. Some days you miss tackles, I think it's as simple as that. You want to get back out on the football field as much as anything.
“ It's critical though, and there were too many. It's one thing to miss a tackle and just a great play by an offensive player, it's another just not to wrap up and some of those things that we did. That's not us, we haven't seen that since we have been here and hopefully won't see it again.”
The turnovers have been an emphasis, and the Texans are producing in that category. However, Texans safety Justin Reid, who has two interceptions and a forced fumble, is out this game with a sprained knee, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
“Well, I can't say that I'm surprised, I've been disappointed that we haven't been able to grasp our philosophy on how we want to play defense,” Smith said. “We have players that take coaching, so I wouldn't say surprised, it's something that we have to continue to do. I think you put an emphasis anything that's important to you I think as a coach, and you put a big emphasis on it, and you have guys that are willing to. I mean, you can get it done, but not the way we want. I mean, that was good getting a couple last week and every time you see the defense taking the ball away it kind of helps, but there's so much more that we can do.”
McCaffrey played 71 percent of the Panthers’ snaps against the Saints and had 29 touches. HE missed 13 games last season due to shoulder, ankle and quadriceps injuries.
When healthy, McCaffrey is a prolific contributor. He had 2,392 all-purpose yards in 2019.
“McCaffrey, if he gets going, it's just like any other week, as far as like the run,” Mercilus said. “If you can't stop the run, it's going to be a long day. With Christian, he's great at dipping into blocks and dipping out and making you miss, especially making people jump out of the blocks, and stuff like that.
“That's a huge thing that we have to watch out for, especially playing him. Back in 2019, I remember I dipped in on a block, I was out of my gap, and he just bounced it outside for a touchdown. We have to be very, very disciplined in that.”
For his career, McCaffrey has 3,315 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns, 334 catches for 2,826 yards and 16 touchdowns for 6,141 yards of total offense.
“It's obvious that they're going to find ways to get him the football,” Texans coach David Culley said. “If you just look at the two ballgames he's played, when he's in there, there's a pretty good chance that during the series he's going to end up touching that ball, whether it's running the ball or them throwing the ball to him, simply because he's a tremendous player.
"He's one of the best players in this league at being multi-purpose at what he does and they do an excellent job of putting him in situations to be successful. They do a good job of doing that.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.