CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – Christian McCaffrey gets ready to make his return to the lineup on Sunday when the Panthers take on the Chiefs in Kansas City.
While Mike Davis had performed well in McCaffrey’s absence, the All Pro’s return to the lineup is a welcome sight for the Panthers. After two games with lackluster production on the ground, Carolina had a resurgence last week against the Atlanta Falcons, but it wasn’t enough to garner a victory.
Following a three game win streak, the Panthers have now dropped three in a row. Like they have all season, Carolina has played teams tough, and each of their most recent losses have been by one possession margins. Inefficiency from the quarterback position has plagued the team during this losing streak, as Bridgewater has managed three touchdowns to three interceptions in that span. And if you take away his solid performance against the Saints, he’s completed fewer than 60% of his passes in two of the team’s losses. That will certainly need to be improved as they will need to keep pace with a high-scoring Chiefs offense.
McCaffrey’s presence should be able to help both the ground game and the passing game as he adds an extremely dynamic element to the offense, and will force the Chiefs to account for him on every play. Head Coach Matt Rhule indicated in a Friday press conference that McCaffrey has looked good in practice this week. Hear what he had to say below:
The defense has had its moments this year, but they’re still very vulnerable to explosive offenses, and they now prepare for the league’s best. In going up against fast-paced high-scoring offenses the past two weeks, Carolina’s defense has allowed over 400 yards passing and over 130 yards rushing. The defensive line will need to win individual battles along the line of scrimmage if they hope to slow the Chiefs run-game. At that same token, pushing the pocket will be key, because giving Patrick Mahomes any amount of time can prove to be catastrophic.
Mahomes is on fire, and the team is clicking on all cylinders. They’re second in the NFL in points for, and third in the league when it comes to points against. They bring a 6-1 record into Arrowhead Stadium, with their lone loss coming against the Raiders one month back.
Dynamic explains their offense and their players. Mahomes, of course, has taken the league by storm and can make any play on the field. He’s mobile, but proficient in the pocket, and threads the needle on a given throw. He has a speedster in Tyreek Hill on the outside, while Travis Kelce serves as the league’s best tight end and security blanket. Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a shifty back with explosive capabilities, and their recent acquisition in LeVeon Bell brings a whole other element to the backfield. His patient running style is perfect for chipping away at the opposing defense. While he may not break a big run, consistent five or six yard gains are to be expected.
Rhule and edge Brian Burns detailed the challenges of preparing for Mahomes below:
They are the best team in the league at executing screens as well, and they use them as run-game alternatives to put the ball in their playmakers’ hands and get them in space. Assignment football is a must for defenses facing this offense.
On defense, the Chiefs rank towards the back end of the middle of the league in several categories. They’re allowing nearly five yards per carry to opposing running backs, and have given up the sixth-most total yards. But they’re holding teams to fewer than twenty points per game, and lead the league in takeaways with 14.Chris Jones is their focal point on the front seven. He leads the team in sacks with 4.5, and is a matchup nightmare for opposing offensive linemen on the interior. Sacks aside, he’s also recorded 12 quarterback hits. At defensive end is Frank Clark, who they acquired from the Colts last season. Clark is a proficient pass rusher, and sets the edge extremely well.
On the back end, Tyrann Mathieu is the swiss army knife on the defense. He can be a traditional strong safety at times, but also plays in the slot and crowds the line of scrimmage in a linebacker capacity. He and fellow safety, Daniel Sorenson, each have two interceptions apiece. If the turnover opportunities are there, the Chiefs rarely miss it, making it that much more imperative this week that Carolina holds onto the ball.
What Las Vegas did well in their win over the Chiefs was controlling the time of possession and winning the fourth quarter. They stuck with a consistent approach on the ground and through the air, and never fully let the Chiefs take them off balance. That’s exactly what the Panthers need to do on Sunday. They need the ground game to come alive early, and if they sustain long drives while keeping Mahomes and company off the field then they have a great chance at controlling the flow of the game.
Christian McCaffrey needs to have a big game in his return as well. The Panthers have been at their best when they have a solid run game, and his ability to turn a five yard gain into a 50-yard touchdown is what separates him from most in the NFL. Look for the Panthers to utilize his skills early and often. And worst case scenario is the Chiefs dedicate too much attention to the All Pro running back and open up things dowfield for this receiving corps. Either way, the longer the Panthers can keep the ball away from Mahomes the better.
They’ve played teams tough all season long, and so they’ll likely bring that mentality into Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.