Christian McCaffrey

How 49ers' focus on Panthers star Christian McCaffrey pays off in rout

How 49ers' focus on Panthers star Christian McCaffrey pays off in rout

SANTA CLARA -- A running back stole the show in the 49ers-Panthers game Sunday, but it wasn't the one most expected it to be.

Tevin Coleman scored not one, not two, not three, but four touchdowns for San Francisco. Raheem Mostert added another. Meanwhile, Carolina's Christian McCaffrey, who entered the game as perhaps the NFL's most dynamic singular offensive talent so far this season, was relatively held in check.

The former Stanford star rushed 14 times for 117 yards and one touchdown at Levi's Stadium -- a very respectable 8.4-yard average against the 49ers' vaunted defense -- and also caught four passes for an additional 38 yards. McCaffrey entered the game averaging a league-leading 153.8 yards from scrimmage, and he picked up 155 on Sunday.

"We knew [McCaffrey] was going to be an issue coming into this game," 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said. "Having to focus on him throughout the game, we were just flying around to the football."

"He is a super-talented player," defensive lineman Arik Armstead added. "They love to get the ball to him in various ways, so we definitely had to gang tackle and corral him. He got a few plays on us, but for the most part … you know, we got the win. It was definitely a challenge. He’s an awesome player who can make guys miss, so it was definitely a challenge for us."

Armstead wasn't mistaken -- San Francisco did permit McCaffrey to break through for a few big plays. He had a 24-yard third-down reception on a wheel-route mismatch with edge rusher Nick Bosa. McCaffery also went 40 yards untouched for a rushing score, and he almost added another, but 49ers safety Jimmie Ward was able to haul him down as the last line of defense after a 37-yard gain.

On the very next play, Bosa snagged his first career interception, flipping the field and snuffing out any lingering hope that Carolina had for a comeback. Ward's touchdown-saving tackle didn't go unnoticed by cornerback Richard Sherman.

[RELATED: Bosa dominates Panthers after watching brother's big game]

"When [McCaffrey] broke out -- he’s a good player, he’s going to get his runs -- Jimmie was able to get him down and keep points off the board," Sherman said after the 51-13 win. "And that’s what you appreciate about an ‘eraser.’ He’s not going to get enough credit for that. It’s not going to show up as a huge stat in the stat sheet, but he’s a guy who you appreciate."

Ward helped erase one of San Francisco's big errors, and really, there wasn't a whole lot to complain about from a 49ers perspective, as they put together their most complete game yet and improved to 7-0 on the season.

Still, Sherman knows they still have plenty to fix.

"The mistakes," he responded when asked what San Francisco will focus on moving forward. "Like, we gave up way too many explosive plays. It was dirty, it was nasty. McCaffrey skated out for the touchdown -- that wasn’t explosive, that was a sloppy play that we had. We could have got that stop. The play where he had the long run where Jimmie [Ward] had to … those are mistakes. Those are the things you focus on. You focus on correcting mistakes. I’m sure Jimmy [Garoppolo] will focus on the [interception].

"You don’t focus on the things you did well because the things you did well will make you complacent," Sherman continued. "You focus on the things you didn’t do well, the things that you can correct, because -- sure, it’s a huge win, everybody’s happy. But it could have been cleaner, we could have been more precise. We can do better."

The 49ers are 7-0, haven't allowed a passing touchdown in over a month and just had their first 50-point game since 2003.

And yet, they can do better. Yikes.

Why 49ers know firsthand how much Christian McCaffrey's game has grown

Why 49ers know firsthand how much Christian McCaffrey's game has grown

SANTA CLARA — In Week 1 of the 2017 season, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey made his NFL debut at Levi’s Stadium. The 49ers defense held him to 47 yards on 13 carries and five receptions for 38 yards, but the Panthers won 23-3. 

Flash forward to 2019, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and the 49ers defense is preparing to face one of the most productive offensive players in the NFL. Through six games, McCaffrey is tied for the league lead in touchdowns (nine) and is second in all-purpose yards (923). 

“I remember him vividly,” Saleh said. “In our first year, felt like he was a scat back, change of pace. We had a plan for him. We felt like he would get his touches but didn’t think he’d hurt us.”

But Saleh is well aware of how possible it is now that McCaffrey will hurt a team. The third-year running back averages 103 yards rushing per game, which ranks him second -- just behind Minnesota Vikings tailback Dalvin Cook (103.6 rushing yards per game).

“He is a more complete back,” Saleh said. “A very powerful runner where he can break tackles. He’s the full package. He’s obviously had a heck of a meal plan and a heck of a weightlifting program because he’s a very, very complete back. There’s no weakness in his football game.” 

McCaffrey will obviously be facing a very stingy 49ers defensive line, which Saleh explains must stay sound in their gaps. If there is one inch of room, Saleh knows McCaffrey will exploit it. 

The 49ers also will lean heavily on the speed of both linebackers Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner to contain McCaffrey at the second level, where he is used in the passing game. 

“We’ve always said that the running back has outpaced the evolution of the linebacker,” Saleh said. “And to us ever since 2011, we felt like we’ve gotten ahead of the chains in terms of finding linebackers that can keep up with the backs that are being used as receivers.” 

[RELATED: Why Sherman's locker provides fond memories for Sanders]

Kyle Shanahan believes Carolina’s offensive scheme takes advantage of McCaffrey’s well-rounded talent. So much so that it reminds the 49ers head coach of a certain Hall of Fame running back.

“He reminds me of Marshall Faulk,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “He can beat you in the pass game, he can beat you in the run game. They’re doing a great job on how to use him because they are using him as much as possible. 

“Christian is ... not many players you can do that with, but he has the ability to do it. You can tell he’s a very smart player, extremely talented and that’s why he’s being mentioned with some of the best in the league this year.”

NFL Preview 2019: Jimmy Garoppolo, three other MVP sleepers in the NFC

NFL Preview 2019: Jimmy Garoppolo, three other MVP sleepers in the NFC

Football fans are beginning to get the itch. As teams post graphics counting down the days to the start of the NFL season, hope for all fans is at its highest point. We've been without college and pro football (sorry AAF fans) since early February, but the dog days of summer are just about over and NFL training camps finally begin starting up next week.

With the NFL's designated enemies Bill Belichick and Tom Brady bringing home their sixth Lombardi trophy with the Patriots in 2018, every team in the NFL has its heart set on dethroning the boys from Foxborough.

When it comes to individual awards, several standouts from the NFC brought home hardware last season. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley brought home the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. But when it came to the NFL MVP, there was little debate as to choosing anyone besides Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. 

As we take a look at some of the longshots from the NFC who could grab the throne of NFL MVP, we only considered players who had odds at 80/1 or worse, according to the Westgate Sports Book. With the criteria set, let's examine four potential dark-horse picks for the NFL's most valuable player.

Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers QB

The case for: Garoppolo has shown the ability to quickly adapt to schemes and has won six of his first eight starts with the organization. Several NFL analysts have mentioned Garoppolo as an outside-the-box candidate for MVP, including NBC Sports' NFL Analyst Chris Simms. George Kittle should be even more motivated after a breakout 2018 season, as he can now (hopefully) play an entire season with a franchise QB as opposed to the Nick Mullens/C.J. Beathard experiment the 49ers trotted out last season. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has experience building players into MVP-caliber players, as he was the Falcons' offensive coordinator when Matt Ryan won the MVP in 2016. With one of the NFL's top offensive minds at the helm of the 49ers coaching staff, Garoppolo should be put into plenty of positions to be successful in 2019 and could bring the NFL MVP trophy back to the City by the Bay for the first time since Steve Young won it in 1994.

The case against: Garoppolo has only played eight games under Shanahan, and the lack of proven weapons at the receiver and running back positions could backfire for a QB with limited reps in regular-season action. The team faces the 11th toughest schedule in the NFL this year, and if the defense can't stay healthy, this team will have a hard time staying in games and could force the offense to play from behind frequently. An offensive line that has been hit or miss outside of Joe Staley could regress, all but eliminating Garoppolo's chance at taking home the MVP trophy in February.

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers RB

The case for: One of the best dual-threats in the NFL, the former Stanford standout was dominant both in the run and pass game. McCaffrey had 1,965 scrimmage yards in 2018 with 13 touchdowns, and it is not out of the realm of possibility to see McCaffrey reach the very exclusive 1,000-1,000 club, as he was just 133 receiving yards from it last season. If he were to cross that vaunted threshold with rushing and receiving yards -- and the Panthers return to the form that saw them represent the NFC at Super Bowl 50 -- it would be tough to look past the talented tailback as the NFL's top player.

The case against: A running back hasn't won the MVP since 2012, when Adrian Peterson brought home the honors after rushing for over 2,000 yards. In today's pass-happy NFL, the running back position has become much less valuable and so many teams simply plug and play guys throughout the year. With the Panthers once again having little to no elite options in the receiving core, teams will be stacking the box and focusing much of their attention on McCaffrey on every play, which will limit the chances for him to make big plays out of the backfield. Unless he puts together a record-setting season, it's hard to see a running back hoisting the MVP at season's end.

Aaron Donald, Rams DT

The case for: I know, I know, but just hear me out. Donald was just two sacks shy of the NFL's single-season record for sacks in 2018 and also led the NFL with 27 tackles for loss, which was the eighth-best single-season mark in NFL history. Although opponents likely will continue to deploy double and triple teams on Donald, it hasn't seemed to slow him down much the past few years as he has won back-to-back AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. A team's overall success often ends up being a significant component of the MVP formula, and if the Rams are among the top two or three teams in the league at the end of the season, it wouldn't be far-fetched to see Donald win the first MVP for a defensive player since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

The case against: Refer to the last sentence of the above paragraph, as no defender has won the NFL's top crown since LT was prowling the NFL sidelines (which was five years before Donald was even born). In an age of absurd offensive production, the rules and officiating have significantly favored the offenses and that doesn't appear to be changing any time soon. Donald would have to be over-the-top dominant in order to be in the running at season's end.

[RELATED: Why Peter King thinks Jimmy Garoppolo key to 49ers making NFL playoffs]

Dak Prescott, Cowboys QB

The case for: Prescott was gifted one of the NFL's best receivers midseason in 2018 when Amari Cooper was traded to the Cowboys from the Raiders in late October. The Cowboys were a playoff team in 2018, and with most of their offensive weapons returning in 2019, they should be in the thick of the conversation once again in 2019. Dallas also has the second-best offensive line (according to Pro Football Focus) lined up in front of him, which once again will afford Prescott plenty of time in the pocket. If he does take that next step and has a season like the one that earned him the 2016 AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, we could see Prescott accepting another major award come February.

The case against: Prescott clearly has not blown away Jerry Jones and the Cowboys' front office, as he is still awaiting a long-term extension with the team. And if Ezekiel Elliott ends up continuing his contentious negotiations with the team into the regular season, it could affect the locker room and generate problems for the 'Boys in 2019. Prescott also reportedly has been tweaking his mechanics in the offseason, which could end up being more of a detriment than a positive. If Elliott ends up still being the focal point of the offense in 2019, Prescott will not even be the top MVP candidate on his own team.