For the 4th time since he came into the NFL a year and a half ago, the New Orleans Saints defense will have yet another opportunity this upcoming Monday Night to face off against one of the League's most dynamic and exciting young superstars: 2nd year Carolina Panthers RB sensation Christian McCaffrey.
Without question, one of the easiest ways for New Orleans to avoid an upset loss will be successfully trying to stop the quick and agile 22-year old and the obvious match-up "nightmare" that he can be for opponents; against a Saints defense that's had some mixed results so far in their previous 3 meetings at defending one of this generation's most dangerous and explosive weapons on the offensive side of the football.
The key for New Orleans will be their linebackers (specifically the team's leading tackler Demario Davis) and whether or not he / they can hold up in space if asked to routinely cover McCaffrey when he does perhaps what no other player in the League does quite nearly as well as he does: catching passes as a receiver out of the backfield.
In their 3 previous match-ups including last year's Wild Card Playoff game at the Superdome, McCaffrey has been targeted by Panthers QB Cam Newton on 25 passes against the Saints defense and has caught 20 of them for 235 yards and 2 TD's.
In the two regular season match-ups against McCaffrey last season, the Saints had some rather mixed results; as McCaffrey caught nine passes for 101 yards in Week #3 at Charlotte, North Carolina; and followed that up with five catches for 33 yards in Week #13 at the Superdome, one of those receptions of which was a wide-open 21-yard touchdown.
Then in the 3rd meeting in early January of this year in the Wild Card game, McCaffrey caught 6 passes for 101 yards — featuring this 56-yard catch-and-run that he "took to the house".
Now in his 2nd NFL season, the former All-American RB at Stanford University and the Panthers' top pick (#8 overall) in last year's 2017 NFL Draft is currently closing in on the most productive offensive season in Carolina's 23-year franchise history.
McCaffrey needs just 10 more yards from scrimmage to break DeAngelo Williams' franchise record of 1,636 scrimmage yards set a decade ago, back in 2008.
But what's become more than evident already is just how truly talented that the 2nd generation superstar (the son of former NFL star WR "Easy" Ed McCaffrey who played for the 49ers and Broncos in the 1990's) is at this stage of his young NFL career.
As noted by Panthers.com beat writer Will Bryan: over the last seven weeks, McCaffrey has scored a league-best 12 total touchdowns, and now ranks 4th overall in the NFL with 13 total touchdowns (7 rushing, 6 receiving).
With 926 rushing yards and 701 receiving yards and 3 more games still left to play, McCaffrey could become just the 10th different player in NFL history to record at least 1,000 rushing yards and 750 receiving yards in a single season.
Additionally, he's caught 86 passes this season; which means that if he maintains his current pace, he will break the NFL single-season receptions record by a running back (102 by Matt Forte in 2014).
Bottom line: McCaffrey is a match-up "nightmare" for any opponent that he faces week-to-week; and despite the Panthers' current 5-game losing streak that's all but essentially eliminated the Panthers from Playoff contention, he still could pose some serious issues for the Saints defense on Monday Night.
With the Saints currently ranked as the NFL's #1-ranked defense (only 77.6 yards per contest), McCaffrey could face the possibility of being "shut down" on the ground; despite the fact that Carolina is actually the league’s second-best running team; averaging 137.4 yards per game on the ground.
But unquestionably, the majority of damage that McCaffrey has done to the Black and Gold clearly has been via the air; and he’s more than capable of breaking a game wide open with his impressive combination of sprinter’s speed and mind-blowing superior athletic talent.
And that talent is exactly the reason why trying to stop McCaffrey this Monday Night in Charlotte, could be a nightmare for the surging Saints defense....