Why NFL defenses should be terrified of the 49ers

Christian McCaffrey thrilled to be mastering Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense, and that should terrify defenses

Being traded midseason in the NFL is unlike other professional sports like the NBA, MLB or NHL where most game plans don’t have that dramatic of a difference from each other. Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey had to basically learn an offense from scratch during the 2022 season when he was traded by the Carolina Panthers, who ran a more spread West Coast offense under then-offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, to the San Francisco 49ers, who run a predominantly under center, zone-blocking scheme that often has a fullback, a nearly extinct position, on the field under head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Following the Stanford alum’s return home to the Bay Area, McCaffrey didn’t start right away, coming off the bench in Week 7 against the Kansas City Chiefs before becoming a mainstay in the starting lineup, beginning in Week 8 against the Los Angeles Rams. Safe to say he’s fire up about being on the same page with the rest of his teammates starting in Week 1 in the upcoming season.

“Yeah, it’s much better,” McCaffrey said, via 104.5FM KNBR, on Monday when talking about his knowledge of the 49ers’ playbook entering 2023. “OTAs were great, just to really understand the concepts and really, not just learn the running back position, but the whole offense, and understand timing with what the quarterback sees and what Kyle sees, and getting timing right with the O-line, and [FB Kyle Juszczyk], and the tight ends. So coming into camp, you’re not playing catch-up. So it’s been great to be able to kind of not just learn the offense, but master it.”

McCaffrey with a mastery of Shanahan’s offense should terrify NFL defenses everywhere because he was the league’s most impactful running back without a deep knowledge of the plays he was running in 2022. His presence as both a rusher and receiver in the starting lineup beginning in Week 8 helped power San Francisco to a perfect 10-0 record to finish the regular season. It doesn’t get much better than that.

McCaffrey serving as both Garoppolo and Purdy’s starting backfield mate also elevated the 49ers offense to the second-highest scoring attack in the entire league (30.5 points per game) as well as the most efficient passing game in the NFL (114.1 passer rating).

No running back totaled more receiving yards in the final 11 weeks of the 2022 regular season than McCaffrey’s 440, astounding considering the rusher behind right behind him in that category, Los Angeles Chargers star Austin Ekeler, had 75 fewer receiving yards (375) despite four more catches in that span than CMC (54 to 50). Only Tony Pollard averaged more yards per touch in that span, 5.8 to McCaffrey’s 5.7. However, McCaffrey maintained that near-league-leading figure despite 47 more touches, 201 to 154, than Pollard from Week 8 to the end of the regular season. CMC’s 201 touches in that run were the third most in the NFL while Pollard’s workload ranked tied for 20th.

McCaffrey catapulting the 49ers offense to a top-five level in nearly every critical metric while San Francisco was in the process of shuffling starting quarterbacks is the sign of the ultimate, most valuable game-changer at his position today. However, he feels like knowledge of all the intricate details on every play of San Francisco’s offense can help power him and the 49ers offense to even higher level in 2023.

“I feel like a football nerd every time I’m in those meetings,” McCaffrey said. “Just really grasping exactly how well he [head coach Kyle Shanahan] understands not just how to run the play offensively, but defensively, and why setting the edge is so important, why running to the ball is so important. So you start to understand what defenses are being taught and what the play is trying to accomplish, and so every step matters. It’s not just running the ball and looking with your eyes. There’s an aiming point. There’s vision that comes with it. There’s setting your blocks. There’s so many different cues that are on each and every run play, and some of them are a little bit different than others. So it’s just been great to be able to not just learn, but rep exactly all the different plays that we’re trying to get and then having the different pass plays off of it.”

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