49ers RB Christian McCaffrey thriving with scheme, increased workload

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Through two games, San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey has been the most productive running back in the NFL, emerging as one of the top candidates for Offensive Player of the Year.

He leads the league in rushing with 268 yards, averaging an impressive 6.4 yards per carry. McCaffrey’s 268 rushing yards are the most through two games of a season since 2014, when DeMarco Murray had 285 for the Dallas Cowboys.

According to Next Gen Stats, McCaffrey has gained 249 of his 268 yards after contact, 100 more than any other player.  

The seventh-year back, who joined the 49ers midseason last year from the Carolina Panthers, said part of the reason for his success early on was getting more reps in the offense during the offseason, creating better anticipation for where holes open for bigger gains. McCaffrey has seven rushes of at least 10 yards through two games and two rushes of at least 50 yards. 

“I think it’s huge,” McCaffrey said about having a full offseason to get more acclimated in San Francisco’s running game. “You run with your eyes, and your feet follow. So understanding where to put your eyes on every run and what the scheme is trying to accomplish is so important. 

“So, having more wisdom under my belt is very important.”

San Francisco offensive line and run game coordinator Chris Foerster echoed those sentiments, saying McCaffrey’s unique ability to create explosive plays has been accentuated by time on task — more reps in offensive guru Kyle Shanahan’s zone-based run blocking scheme. 

“Runners don’t get coached a lot,” Foerster told reporters. “They get coached in this offense, what they’re supposed to read, what they’re supposed to see, how they’re supposed to press it. And obviously Christian does his thing, too, because he’s a great runner and has instincts and feel. 

“Now he understands all those things, he understands the plays. We went through a whole offseason of him understanding what we’re trying to accomplish with this play, when we toss him the ball in this way, when we hand him the ball, how he’s used to set up the blocks, what we’re thinking up front. He didn’t know those things.” 

Will Bijan Robinson, Patrick Mahomes or Christian McCaffrey win OPOY?

Will Bijan Robinson, Patrick Mahomes or Christian McCaffrey win OPOY?

McCaffrey has had an increased workload to start the 2023 season. He played 58 snaps in the season opener at Pittsburgh and all 57 snaps in last week’s road win over the Los Angeles Rams. Elijah Mitchell surprisingly did not get in the game against the Rams, something Shanahan will look to rectify in Thursday’s nationally televised game at home against the visiting New York Giants.

“We’ve definitely got to get Elijah in there more and do better with our rotation than we did [Sunday],” Shanahan said. “That wasn’t the plan going in. It just ended up that way, and I’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Most of McCaffrey’s rushing yards have come behind the left side of San Francisco’s offensive line, with left tackle Trent Williams and left guard Aaron Banks leading the way. Per Next Gen Stats, 213 of McCaffrey’s 268 rushing yards have come on runs to the left side of the formation.

Expect San Francisco to lean on the running game against a New York defense allowing 136.5 yards per game, No. 26 in the NFL. 

The Giants have an uphill climb in stopping McCaffrey and San Francisco’s explosive offense. New York has not forced a turnover or recorded a sack through two games. Along with bottling up McCaffrey, Mitchell and “wide back” Deebo Samuel in the running game, the Giants will have to tame a San Francisco passing game led by quarterback Brock Purdy and playmakers in tight end George Kittle and receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

Aiyuk was limited in practice this week due to a shoulder issue and is a game-time decision.

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The Giants have stayed on the West Coast after their come-from-behind victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, practicing at Arizona State University’s indoor facility. Giants head coach Brian Daboll said his team will have its hands full corralling McCaffrey and the rest of San Francisco’s offense.

“They’ve got a lot of good players on their team,” Daboll told reporters this week. “A team full of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros. Whether it’s McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel or Aiyuk, [Nick] Bosa, [Javon] Hargrave and [Fred] Warner — the list goes on and on.

“I’d say their team is well-constructed. [San Francisco GM] John Lynch has done a great job, along with Kyle. There’s a lot of challenges with this team in a number of areas.” 

And it all starts with the NFL’s leading rusher.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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