It’s been a while since the New Orleans Saints got a good look at Christian McCaffrey. The superstar running back missed both games with the black and gold last season due to injury, and he only touched the ball 16 times in the previous season finale before getting pulled from the game with most of Carolina’s starters. The Saints haven’t seen McCaffrey at full strength in a meaningful game since before Thanksgiving 2019.
That’s far from the case this time. McCaffrey is back in good health after missing 13 games last year with a high-ankle sprain plus shoulder and quadriceps issues, and the Panthers quickly got back up to speed by handing him 30 touches in Week 1. He converted that workload (21 carries, 9 receptions) into 187 yards from scrimmage. He’s a special player, maybe the closest thing to Alvin Kamara than the man himself, able to separate easily as a receiver while running strong between the tackles.
The Saints defense has their work cut out for them in slowing him down. They’ve limited McCaffrey to just 103.4 total yards per game (as a runner, receiver, and passer) in seven matchups, including the playoffs. They know how to defend him. They’re just suddenly looking short handed.
If he were healthy, linebacker Kwon Alexander would be the go-to option to defend McCaffrey; he’s the most athletic player at his level of the field, and he’s held his own against similar players before. But Alexander is on injured reserve, meaning the Saints must put Zack Baun against the Panthers’ dynamo on most of his snaps. Baun had a great summer and played well (sparingly) in Week 1. Still, the jump in competition is going to challenge him.
But look for containing McCaffrey to be a team effort from New Orleans. In that meeting in Week 12 of 2019, the Saints saw six different defenders targeted in coverage against McCaffrey. In that year’s rematch, the number climbed to seven different defenders. They’ll get creative and tailor their personnel to slowing down Carolina’s best weapon. With so many injuries across the board (top slot defender C.J. Gardner-Johnson is questionable to play, too) it’s going to be tough. Let’s see how they handle it.
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