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Panthers finally getting the most out of Christian McCaffrey at just the right time

Christian McCaffrey had his best performance of the season Sunday — a performance the Carolina Panthers can build on as they vie for the NFC South title and potentially more in a wide-open NFC.

The eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations placed on him, but that’s not entirely his fault. The Panthers have lacked creativity in using one of the more versatile weapons to enter the NFL in recent years, throwing him bland bubble screens and running him between the tackles.

But against the Packers, Carolina made the most of McCaffrey’s talents. They moved him around and found ways to get him the ball in space, where he can use his elusiveness to make defenders miss and pick up additional yards after the catch.

Here, the Panthers line up McCaffrey in the slot to the right before motioning him into the backfield to the left of quarterback Cam Newton. When the ball is snapped, McCaffrey loops around Newton into the flat to the right while the Panthers have their right guard work out in front as a lead blocker. Newton dumps the ball off to McCaffrey, who has plenty of space to work with on his way to a 20-yard gain.

A few plays later, McCaffrey lined up outside as a receiver.

McCaffrey was known as a strong route runner in college, which made him far more than just a running back. His route-running ability shows up on this play. He takes an outside release but gives himself space to work outside on the comeback route. At the top of his route, McCaffrey flashes his head inside to fake an inside cut before sharply cutting back outside to the sideline. Newton’s pass is out on time and McCaffrey makes the catch for a first down.

The creativity continued on the same drive as the Panthers entered the red zone. McCaffrey’s versatility can be a huge weapon in the red zone, if used correctly. The Panthers appear to finally be figuring that out.

This time, McCaffrey lines up as a conventional back in the backfield to the right of Newton. The Panthers bring in a receiver tight to the right and have him run a shallow crossing route while tight end Greg Olsen runs up the seam to take the attention of two defenders. This creates a big hole in the defense that McCaffrey breaks into. Newton has a simple pass and McCaffery secures the catch and runs into the end zone for a touchdown.

The Panthers also used McCaffrey well in the running game. They mixed in a good portion of different types of runs, including option plays that got McCaffrey to the edge.

Here, the Panthers run a triple-option play. In the Pistol formation, the Panthers have Jonathan Stewart to the left of Newton with McCaffrey behind them. Newton has the option to hand off to Stewart, keep it himself, or pitch the ball to McCaffrey. Newton pulls the ball from Stewart and draws in the edge defender before pitching it to McCaffrey, who secures the ball and runs down the sideline, picking up a first down before being forced out of bounds.

Hopefully this is the start of the Panthers being more creative in their use of McCaffrey. It paid off for them as McCaffery had 18 total touches for 136 yards and a touchdown. He averaged more than five yards per carry and 12 yards per catch. If they can continue on this trend, then McCaffrey could become a huge weapon for them entering the playoffs.

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