How will the 49ers use Christian McCaffrey in critical Rams matchup?

Despite an extremely tight turnaround after his trade from the Panthers last week, Christian McCaffrey made an impact in his debut for the 49ers in Week 7, delivering efficient production across his 10 touches.

McCaffrey averaged 6.2 yards per touch for San Francisco as the Niners lost 44-23 to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The former All-Pro was already set to have a vastly more expanded role in his second game, a critical NFC West encounter with the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium this Sunday, even before Deebo Samuel was ruled out with a hamstring injury.

With Samuel on the sideline, McCaffrey’s versatile skill set figures to be integral to the 49ers’ hopes of claiming a victory that will move them back to 4-4, but how will he influence the San Francisco offense in what is their most important game of the season so far?



Greater commitment to the run

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The 49ers have had to get away from the run game in each of the last two weeks primarily because they fell behind by multiple scores against both the Falcons and the Chiefs.

History, and the lack of effective offense on the side of the Rams, suggests the Niners will be in a position to stick with it more readily this week and McCaffrey boasts several traits that make it significantly more likely to be effective.

McCaffrey’s elusiveness and burst are enticing attributes but it is his vision that may be most important.

It came to the fore even in his cameo role against the Chiefs as McCaffrey consistently did an excellent job of reading his blocks and using his lateral quickness to shift into the open running lanes before hitting the accelerator to pick up yardage.

That blend of vision, decisiveness and explosiveness is one that opens the full menu for the Niners as it pertains to the ground game, but San Francisco’s emphasis is likely to be on the aspect of the rushing attack that should put the most stress on the Rams’ defense. Thankfully for the 49ers, it is also the area of the run game that produced McCaffrey’s best carry in Week 7.

Attacking the edges

McCaffrey’s longest run of the day came in the second quarter, when he gained 12 yards on an outside run to the left, using his lateral quickness to shift into a running lane opened by Brandon Aiyuk and accelerating into the secondary, where he was brought down by safety Justin Reid.

Runs to the outside may be more available for the 49ers in Week 8.

The Rams won the NFC Championship Game last season in part because of the concerted effort they made to slow down the 49er run game. With Samuel removed from the equation, the Rams may look to replicate the formula from last season’s playoff game and stack the box in an effort to take away the run.

However, if the 49ers can get Trent Williams and Co. in space on outside runs and McCaffrey can consistently rip off chunk plays on those carries, Los Angeles might not be able to hone in quite so heavily on defending the inside zone and gap scheme runs that are also an established part of San Francisco’s attack.

The threat of runs attacking the edge has the potential added benefit of creating opportunities for rushes akin to McCaffrey’s first as a 49er, when he gained 10 yards on a well-blocked toss windback play.

Kyle Juszczyk’s absence with a finger injury may limit what San Francisco can do somewhat. However, the 49ers have the personnel to excel attacking with outside zone, inside zone and gap runs, they just haven’t had a back of McCaffrey’s talents to weaponize those rushes in recent times.

Even without Samuel, McCaffrey can put the Rams in conflict with his well-rounded skill set running the ball, and the 49ers will likely use him to stretch the Los Angeles defense not just on the ground, but also through the air.



A Garoppolo easy button

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The 49ers offered a glimpse against Kansas City of how they may use McCaffrey in the passing game, sending him in motion out into the formation as a receiver for a screen pass that went for 13 yards.

Later, with the Chiefs sending a six-man pressure, Garoppolo found McCaffrey as his checkdown against the blitz and he gained yards after the catch to pick up nine on 1st-and-20.

That is the two-fold impact of McCaffrey in the passing game. San Francisco can use the threat of him catching the ball to spread defenses out, with opponents well aware of the damage he can do if he gets a favorable matchup. In addition, he provides an outlet for Garoppolo to negate the impact of pressure by giving the quarterback a safety valve who always has the potential to make a man miss and turn a low-risk throw into a big play.

Los Angeles has not been shy about sending the blitz in 2022 and may be more willing to do so having seen the success the Chiefs and Falcons had against the Niners when going aggressive.

McCaffrey offers the 49ers a pass-catching option out of the backfield capable of punishing the Rams when they do send the blitz. Should he have success in doing so, it may force the Rams into more shell coverage looks against which he can run the ball.

Though he and Samuel are different players, McCaffrey should expect to be used in a much similar way to the 49ers’ ‘wide back’ in his absence.

Look for San Francisco to consistently send McCaffrey in motion and into the formation to manipulate the Los Angeles defense to create mismatches in the passing game and open more favorable run looks, while the 49ers will also have him serve as an ‘easy button’ for Garoppolo, a role Samuel has consistently played during his career.

McCaffrey’s flexibility was a crucial factor in the 49ers’ decision to trade for him, and it will be pivotal to San Francisco’s prospects of getting back on track by sweeping the Rams.

Story originally appeared on Niners Wire