GREEN BAY — In the 1990s, Dan Patrick popularized the line, “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him” on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Although the saying actually dates back to at least 1958, Patrick’s use of it was on the leading edge of the trend of sports anchors needing a signature catchphrase.
If Patrick ever wanted to bring it out of conversational mothballs, the Green Bay Packers’ meeting Sunday with Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey at Lambeau Field would be the perfect time. Because it’s hard to imagine the Packers’ 24th-ranked run defense finding a way to hold the NFL’s leading rusher in check.
“He’s a complete back. He can do it as a rusher. He can do it as a receiver. He does a great job in protection,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “Total package.”
And he could totally wreck the Packers’ hopes of improving to 8-2 and entering their bye week on a winning note. Not only is McCaffrey second in the NFL with 881 rushing yards in eight games — Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook has more yards (894) but has played one more game — but McCaffrey has also caught 42 passes for 363 yards. With 13 combined touchdowns and 1,244 total yards from scrimmage, he’s on pace for a whopping 2,488 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Throughout the week of practice, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine tried his best to simulate what the 5-foot-11, 205-pound McCaffrey can do. The problem? He didn’t have any one player who could do a passable imitation of all the things McCaffrey can do.
“We have different ones coming in on every play and they all have No. 22 jerseys,” said Packers inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who played college ball with McCaffrey at Stanford. “We’d keep refreshing backs every single play, making sure they’re 100 percent. He’s an explosive player all across the board. He’s an extremely smart player as well. He knows where he’s supposed to hit the run play and where he’s supposed to be patient. He can do anything.”
Including carrying an offense and making a strong case for NFL MVP consideration. With star quarterback Cam Newton out for the year — the closest the 2015 NFL MVP came to playing in Sunday’s game was a visit to renowned foot and ankle specialist Dr. Robert Anderson, who is a Packers team doctor and has his practice across from Lambeau Field at Bellin’s Titletown Sports Medicine clinic — and unproven Kyle Allen starting in Newton’s place, McCaffrey has been vexing opposing defenses for the 5-3 Panthers all season.
“We’ve seen a lot of different coverages, a lot of different personnel groupings, trying to match with him,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The truth of the matter is, and the nice thing is, when we’re distributing the ball as far as the passing game, it’s hard to zero in on just him. Running, obviously, is a little bit different, but as long as we keep distributing the ball, we’ll be OK.”
And therein lies the challenge for the Packers defense. The unit has struggled to stop the run all season, and because Pettine prefers to use his sub packages, which generally use at least one extra defensive back in place of a second inside linebacker, McCaffrey’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield creates a troubling conundrum: If Pettine decides to play inside linebacker B.J. Goodson alongside Martinez to bolster the run defense, it leaves the Packers susceptible to McCaffrey exploiting them in the passing game. If he opts for lighter linebacker Oren Burks or recently activated safety/linebacker hybrid Ibraheim Campbell, Pettine won’t have another thumper to stuff the run.
“You typically don’t want a linebacker on him (in pass coverage) unless he has help. It’s certainly something you don’t want to make a living doing. He gets open on a lot of DBs, let alone linebackers,” Pettine said. “If you have an extra safety out there playing, you’re leaning more towards coverage, as opposed to (playing with a second inside linebacker), so you have the middle of the field closed and another gap accounted for.”
Asked if he’s concerned about his run defense, Pettine replied, “At times, at stretches. I could make a 30-play cut-up of us playing great run defense and a handful of ones where we’re not (and) we’re giving up chunk plays. That’s been a frustrating thing, and it’s had a ripple effect through our play. When we can’t get teams behind the sticks and get them in adverse third-down situations, then you’re constantly having to play more honest defense.”
McCaffrey’s varied skill set has him on pace to challenge the NFL single-season records for total yards from scrimmage (2,509, set by Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson in 2009) and for total touchdowns (23, set by New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss in 2007). And this is nothing new; last year, McCaffrey set the NFL record for receptions by a running back (107) and he had 1,965 total scrimmage yards (1,098 rushing, 867 receiving).
The only team this season that seems to have unlocked the secret to neutralizing McCaffrey has been the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a 20-14 loss to the Buccaneers in Week 2, McCaffrey carried 16 times for just 37 yards and caught two of the six passes thrown his way for just 16 yards. In the Panthers’ 37-26 Week 6 win over the Bucs, McCaffrey carried 22 times for 31 yards and caught four passes for 26 yards, although he did have one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown.
As he put together his game plan for the week, Pettine said it all started with conjuring up ideas for how the Packers could match up with McCaffrey in both the run and the pass. Those answers did not come easily.
“When you’re building a game plan against a back like this, that’s usually the very first thing you look at,” Pettine said. “How much of a threat is he outside of the backfield? How well does he catch? Do they use him like a wideout? That factors into a lot of decisions. There are a lot of defenses that just don’t even get brought up because it puts us in a bad situation. And they do such a good job of getting the ball to him in a variety of ways. They’re very creative whether it’s through screens and sweeps and just the misdirection run game they do.
“There’s been stretches of games where he’s been OK, and just been the typical running back. And then all of a sudden, you turn around and it’s a 60-yarder, an 80-yarder. That’s what you have to guard against. And most of the teams they’ve played this year haven’t been able to do that.”
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