After two weeks, Christian McCaffrey has been the definition of a workhorse back for the 49ers. In an era of running backs splitting time, Kyle Shanahan has turned the clock back to when running backs were in on every down with McCaffrey.
McCaffrey leads the NFL in rushing attempts with 42 at the moment. He also is first in rushing yards and yards per game. Heading into TNF, McCaffrey has logged 48 touches. The two-game average is 24 per game. Extrapolating that over a 17-game season, McCaffrey is on pace for 408 touches on the season. McCaffrey’s previous season high for touches was in 2019 when he logged 403 touches in a 16-game season.
Shanahan explained after the Week 1 victory in Pittsburgh that the experience in Detroit in 2021 was on his mind when considering pulling starters. For those that don’t remember, the 49ers had a comfortable lead, and many starters were on the sideline watching the Lions stage a furious comeback.
Elijah Mitchell carried the ball five times in Pittsburgh. McCaffrey played 85% of the snaps to Mitchell’s 15%.
Following the 49ers win on Sunday, Shanahan spoke to the media and explained it wasn’t the initial plan for McCaffrey to play every snap. Shanahan also expressed the need to get Mitchell involved more.
There are a few factors to consider as to why the plan changed during the game:
First, McCaffrey was incredibly effective, as usual. McCaffrey’s presence on the field is a nuisance for defenses alone due to his versatility. The skillset presented by CMC keeps Shanahan versatile. When someone else is in the backfield, defenses have a better chance of guessing what is coming and what to wipe off the board. If Mitchell or Jordan Mason are on the field, the likelihood of a route or pass to the backs goes down drastically.
Second, Brandon Aiyuk was in and out of the game with a shoulder injury. Perhaps if Aiyuk was healthy and his normal self, Shanahan would have been inclined to get the star receiver involved more. Instead, Shanahan showed confidence in his two star players, McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel. Who can argue with the results?
Finally, this change of plan for the running back rotation felt specific to this week and this week only. The Rams put up a far better fight than many would have expected. The defense struggled in the first half, and Shanahan decided to put the game away with his stud players. It’s hard to argue against putting the ball in the hands of your best players to close out a game.
Will this usage for McCaffrey continue? My bet is you won’t see McCaffrey on the field for every snap against the Giants on Thursday night. The Giants’ defense has allowed 122 and 151 rushing yards in consecutive weeks against Dallas and Arizona. I’d expect to see Mitchell much more on Thursday.
The goal is to have McCaffrey down the stretch and in the playoffs helping the 49ers close out games. In a highly contested game, it isn’t crazy to get the ball to your best players and take your chances. Certain game scripts and situations will dictate the usage of the running backs.
The Giants present a chance to use McCaffrey sparingly. After Thursday, the next time the 49ers play is Sunday, October 1st, at home against Arizona. That’s plenty of rest in between games. It’s fair to believe McCaffrey won’t be needed to put the Cardinals away, either.
Week 5 against Dallas is an entirely different story.
What do you think? Is Shanahan using McCaffrey too much, and will it negatively affect the 49ers in the long run?
Are you concerned about Christian McCaffrey’s workload?