FOXBORO -- Cam Newton will be a focal point for the Patriots defense, especially in light of what another mobile quarterback, Deshaun Watson, just did to this team on Sunday. But to hear Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia on conference calls Tuesday, Christian McCaffrey, is also someone worthy of some serious attention.
The rookie running back is part of the new breed of third-down backs, who do a hell of a lot more than play on third down. McCaffrey lines up all over the damn place - as an I-back, single back or split back. Maybe he’s in the slot. Or outside the numbers. Oh, and don’t forget the return game. Wherever there’s a need, the Panthers aren’t afraid to give the kid a try.
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“[Christian] McCaffrey is definitely someone that has I think has expanded their offense in general in what Coach [Mike] Shula has been able to do on the offensive side of the ball,” said Patricia, "utilizing him in really kind of a multiple role position, both in the backfield, out of the backfield, some motion, some different things they’ve aligned him in. Wildcat would be another one that he’s had a role in too.”
Said Belichick: “Call him whatever you want, but it changes from play to play through the versatility. Even though it’s the same number and the same jersey, where he’s located and what he can do from those locations is different defensively. We have to be aware of where he is and what the possibilities are from those spots."
They better be. The Panthers are invested in McCaffrey. He comes from good stock. His father, Ed, was an NFL receiver for more than a decade. The son is more highly regarded. McCaffrey was the eighth overall pick in the first round and thus far, he’s been getting a fair share of touches - 25 carries, 18 receptions and 9 punt returns. He doesn’t have a touchdown yet but it’ll happen.
“He’s a very talented player,” said Belichick. “He’s got speed, quickness, good hands. He’s a smart player that’s versatile and they can do a lot of different things with him.”
“He’s just a very elusive player,” said Patricia. “[He’s] got great burst, acceleration, good vision, really good space player, can catch the ball extremely well. [He] definitely is a guy that can turn big plays out of nothing and just really an overall huge part of dangerousness that their offense now has with him out there on the field.”
The challenge for the Pats will be to make sure they don’t get their linebackers isolated on McCaffrey. None are what you’d call coverage backers, and as you saw this past weekend, they can be gashed for big plays. The Texans' D’Onta Foreman beat Kyle Van Noy along the sidelines and turned what should have been a short gain into a big one. McCaffrey is quicker, faster and more dynamic in space than Foreman, and dying to break out. The way the Pats have been playing defensively, the fear is it will come Sunday at Gillette.