Michael Conroy / AP
Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 | 9 a.m.
The Raiders rebuilt their defense over the offseason, and thanks to the NFL’s schedule-makers it shouldn’t take long to find out if it worked.
Las Vegas will travel to take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, and if your fantasy league has drafted already, you’re well aware of how highly regarded Christian McCaffrey is. Carolina runs its entire offense through its premier running back; last year, he ran for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns and racked up 1,005 receiving yards and four touchdowns. With few other offensive weapons around him and a new, short-throwing quarterback at the helm, the Panthers are sure to lean on McCaffrey even more heavily in the season opener.
Raiders coach Jon Gruden certainly understands how vital McCaffrey is to the Carolina offense.
"He’s a great tailback," Gruden said. "He can function in a two-back set. He’s a great receiver out of the backfield. He’s a versatile weapon. He’s a guy you can put in slot. He can run option routes and seam routes. He has a wide array of skills that you have to account for."
Last year, a matchup against a versatile back like McCaffrey would have spelled doom for the Raiders. The 2019 defense simply didn’t have the personnel to keep up with him in space, particularly in the passing game. For the year, the Raiders allowed running backs to catch 90 passes for 797 yards and six touchdowns.
That’s why Gruden and Mike Mayock spent tens of millions of dollars to bring in a pair of coverage linebackers to combat modern, pass-happy offenses.
The key on Sunday will likely be outside linebacker Cory Littleton, who got a $36 million contract from Las Vegas on the first day of free agency. Littleton is one of the league’s best coverage linebackers; last year, he was targeted on 85 passing plays, and while he allowed a completion rate of 71.8 percent, he held opponents to just 6.3 yards per target and intercepted two balls.
Is Littleton capable of slowing down McCaffrey enough to give Las Vegas a chance to pick up a win in Week 1? It wouldn’t be the first time Littleton has been asked to do it.
The Rams tasked him with checking McCaffrey in Week 1 of last season, and Littleton did a fine job in Los Angeles’ 30-27 win. The box-score stats may not show it — McCaffrey ran for 128 yards and two touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 81 yards — but Littleton played 100 percent of the snaps and made McCaffrey work for every yard, especially through the air.
In going back and rewatching the All-22 coaches’ film, it appears as though Littleton was assigned to cover McCaffrey on 11 pass routes (nine plays in man-to-man coverage, two in zone). Littleton limited McCaffrey to four catches on those plays for 23 yards, with a long gain of nine yards. That is about as good as you can hope for against a machine like McCaffrey.
So, how did the Rams do it? By utilizing Littleton in a variety of roles.
On this play, McCaffrey swings out of the backfield and the Rams have linebacker Dante Fowler chip him to slow him down before he can turn upfield. Littleton takes over coverage responsibility from there, but McCaffrey has already been taken out of the play and Cam Newton throws elsewhere:
The Rams deployed Littleton in zones as well, and that’s where he made one of the game’s biggest plays.
On this snap, he is covering the middle of the field and steps up to engage McCaffrey as he crosses the line of scrimmage. Newton looks to the seam, however, and Littleton reads his eyes and follows him to the outside, intercepting a pass intended for the tight end:
That play shows off Littleton’s instincts, intelligence, range and athleticism, and his ball skills are obvious. Not only does he take care of his responsibility against McCaffrey, he expands upon that by making a huge play outside his zone. It’s safe to say no Raiders linebackers on the 2019 roster were capable of making that play.
The bulk of Littleton’s work was done in man coverage, and he handled himself with aplomb.
The Panthers love to shift McCaffrey to the slot, clear out the middle of the field and match him up against a linebacker; when they get that matchup, McCaffrey usually gets open and produces big-time yards after the catch. He had a hard time doing it against Littleton, though.
McCaffrey got two chances against Littleton with a ton of open space in the middle of the field, and Littleton won both times.
Here, McCaffrey gives him his best outside juke and cuts across the middle, but Littleton is able to change direction and stay within arm’s reach. McCaffrey makes the catch and Littleton is close enough to tackle him for a minimal gain:
McCaffrey creates a little more separation on this next play, a similar setup that sees him matched up with Littleton on an island. An off-target throw bails out Littleton a bit, but the linebacker’s ability to stay in contact with McCaffrey in coverage is still impressive:
Littleton's experience against McCaffrey has only raised his level of respect for the all-purpose back.
“My man can do anything," Littleton said. "He runs that offense. You don’t know where they’re going to necessarily put him and he’s always a factor in whatever type of play they’re going to run. We've just got to key him; do your best to shut him down in the run game and pass game, and make the other team use their other star players that they do have."
We don’t know exactly how Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will approach it on Sunday, but they have to feel good about having a versatile defender like Littleton at their disposal as they formulate the game plan.