Fort Worth, Texas – In Sam Darnold, the Carolina Panthers have a brand new quarterback.
And in Christian McCaffrey, they again have the same, not-so-old, star running back who remains the face of the franchise and the anchor of the offense.
McCaffrey missed both matchups against the New Orleans Saints last season as he dealt with injuries that limited him to three games. But he'll be available Sunday, when the Panthers (1-0) play the Saints (1-0) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. And in the season opener, he looked like his five-year veteran looked like his pre-injury self.
McCaffrey ran 21 times for 98 yards and caught nine passes for 89 yards in Carolina's 19-14, season-opening victory over the Jets.
"A multitude of problems," Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "No.1 is that he's a good runner of the football, specifically on the outside zone schemes, the stretch schemes. I think he does a really good job of staying on course and being able to put his foot in the ground and find seams in the defense.
"That's probably the first thing you think about, and then secondary to that, you think about all the mismatches that he can create in coverage and his ability to create in space. And so, it makes it really challenging. You can have all the schematics you want to have to try to take this guy away but at the end of the day, they do a good job of trying to find ways to get him in one-on-one matchups and create challenges for the defense."
New Orleans' defense has done one of the better jobs in the NFL of limiting McCaffrey's production and explosive plays in its encounters. In six regular-season games against the Saints, McCaffrey has rushed for 193 yards and two touchdowns on 60 carries (3.2 yards per carry), and caught 39 passes for 364 yards (9.3 yards per catch) and two touchdowns.
"He's shifty, he's quick, agile, all those attributes you think about being fast," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "What he's able to do, he's a workhorse.
"We have to take him out of that game, try to make him uncomfortable. I think we will have a gameplan where we can take care of that. We know them well and he knows us well."
"Yeah, he does a lot," Coach Sean Payton said. "You have to defend him in space in the passing game and you have to defend him at the running back position.
"They hand him the ball, they throw him the ball. He has great versatility and balance. You have to know where he's at on each play and understand where to defend him based on his location."
To help the defensive attention drawn by McCaffrey, the Panthers traded for Darnold in the offseason. Darnold was the Jets' starter his first three seasons; in his debut for his new team, against his former team, he completed 24 of 35 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown.
"They had a good win last week and I would say on both sides of the ball and the kicking game, there are some similarities, yet some dramatic differences," Payton said. "They played fast last week. I thought it was a physical game for them.
"Defensively, they've added a few pieces. In the offseason and free agency, it was a good defense a year ago, I think it's a better defense this year. Seeing the game against New York, offensively it's a significant change at quarterback when you have a starter that's different. McCaffrey's healthy and so it's always a battle when you play a division opponent like this. They're coming off a big win. It's an important game."