How 49ers RB Christian McCaffrey could be kryptonite for Chiefs defense

On offense, the San Francisco 49ers go as Christian McCaffrey goes.

McCaffrey’s ability to create explosive plays in defining moments could be the difference if the Niners are to defeat Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in Super Bowl LVIII.

“It’s hard to win consistently in this league if you can’t run the ball,” San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “No matter how good of a passing game you have, no matter how good of a defense, it doesn’t matter. 

“You can do it here and there and pull it off. But the most consistent way to win is to be balanced and to put pressure on everybody. We love being able to stick with the run game, so you make people defend it. Then, when people defend it, everything gets a little bit easier. If people can stop your run game without committing to it, everything’s a lot harder.”

McCaffrey leads his team this postseason in yards from scrimmage (299) and total touchdowns (4). The NFL rushing leader (1,459) and yards from scrimmage leader (2,023) during the regular season, McCaffrey has served as the engine of San Francisco’s offense. He accounted for 29% of San Francisco’s offense this season, second-most in the league to New York Jets running back Breece Hall (31%).

Since joining San Francisco during a midseason trade with the Carolina Panthers in October 2022, McCaffrey has totaled a league-best 3,792 scrimmage yards and 38 total touchdowns. The 49ers are 26-6 (including postseason) in games McCaffrey has played in since he joined the team.

But in the games the 49ers have lost with McCaffrey in the lineup, Shanahan has struggled to get him going in the running game, as he has averaged just 61 rushing yards a contest.

That included his first game in a San Francisco uniform, a 44-23 loss to Kansas City in which he played 23 snaps just days after joining the 49ers. 

“We didn’t plan on playing him at all,” Shanahan said about that game. “He got here on a Friday afternoon. Then I told John [49ers GM John Lynch] no way. But then when I talked to [McCaffrey] on the phone and the way he was talking to me, I was like, ‘We better send this guy a playbook. He might be playing because he’s adamant that he can do it.’ 

“Then when we played him, he was definitely right. So that was a sign of what we had. He was amazing in that game. He has been the same dude ever since.”

McCaffrey, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones among top Super Bowl players

McCaffrey, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones among top Super Bowl players

Unlike the last time these two teams met, McCaffrey is now much more familiar with Shanahan’s scheme. Along with that, while the Chiefs are much better defensively, they have struggled to consistently stop the run. During the regular season, Kansas City finished No. 27 in rush defense DVOA (defensive-adjusted value over average) — a stat that measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to the NFL average based on situation and opponent.

The Chiefs allowed 4.5 rushing yards per play (No. 24 in the NFL) during the regular season. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will have to figure out how to slow down one of the most explosive, versatile runners in the league in McCaffrey.

What makes him unique is his ability to make impact plays in the backfield or lined up on the perimeter. According to Next Gen Stats, McCaffrey was the top running back in the league in receptions and receiving yards lined up as a receiver during the regular season. 

He also is the first running back since 2017 to lead the league in rushing yards both before contact (510) and after contact (949) in the same season, per Next Gen Stats. The 49ers and McCaffrey face a Kansas City defense that allowed 3.4 yards per carry after contact, the third-most in the league. 

McCaffrey finished with a league-high 44 rushes of 10-plus yards or more in 2023. And he’s on the field a lot, having played 76.2% of San Francisco’s offensive plays during the regular season, the fourth-most of any running back.

McCaffrey was slowed by a calf strain at the end of the regular season and appeared to suffer a shoulder stinger at the end of the NFC Championship Game. Shanahan, however, doesn’t expect those injuries to affect him on Super Bowl Sunday.

Instead, it will be up to Spagnuolo and his stingy defense to slow McCaffrey down.

“It’s scary to watch with all of the weapons they have,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s one piece of it — a big piece of it, right? And even in that game [against Kansas City last season], the first time he touched it he broke for a 7-yard gain. 

“He’s explosive, a real smart football player. But he’s not the only one. They are all over the place on this particular unit.” 

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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