GREEN BAY, Wis. — Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine could think of only one way to simulate the speed of Tyreek Hill in practice during the days leading up to their game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I don’t think there’s much you can do unless we let the receivers line up 5 yards offsides and go,” Pettine said at the time.
Another week, another dynamic player who’s difficult to mimic in practice: Christian McCaffrey.
The Carolina Panthers’ do-it-all running back leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,244) and touchdowns (13) heading into Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field, and who would Pettine have on his scout team to imitate that?
“If [someone] could mimic him, he would probably be playing with the varsity,” Pettine said Thursday.
McCaffrey ranks second in the NFL in rushing yards (881, only 13 yards behind the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook) and leads all running backs in receiving yards (363). He’s on pace for 2,488 yards from scrimmage this season, which would be the second in NFL history only to Chris Johnson’s 2,509 in 2009.
“How do you replicate that?” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “That’s tough to do. Our guys are giving it their all, guys on the look team. But it is tough to replicate that.”
So about the best they could do is throw scout-team back after scout-team back at the defense in practice this week.
“Keep refreshing backs every single play, making sure they’re 100 percent,” said Packers linebacker Blake Martinez, who was a teammate of McCaffrey’s at Stanford.
“We have different ones coming in on every play and they all have No. 22 jerseys.”
McCaffrey has six games with at least 150 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, tied with Jim Brown (1963) for the most such games through eight games in NFL history. He has three rushing touchdowns of at least 50 yards. No other player has more than one this season. He has four touches this season in which he reached at least 20 mph, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Only Cook (with six) has more.
McCaffrey’s 229 career catches are more than Hall of Fame receivers Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison had in their first three seasons. McCaffrey is nine catches away from matching Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson for the most receptions by a back in his first three seasons.
Forget about simulating him in practice, how about trying to figure out a way to slow him down on Sunday?
A matchup with his former college teammate Martinez seems like a mismatch, especially considering the inside linebacker will have to play with a cast covering part of his right hand. Martinez broke his ring finger in practice two weeks ago. Against the Chiefs, he tried to play with a club. Last week against the Chargers, he wore a modified cast that freed up his thumb and first two fingers, but it didn’t help much.
Although he’s Green Bay’s leading tackler — as he should be as an every-down inside backer — the Packers are still looking for a flood of plays on the ball from him. But don’t look for Martinez to cover McCaffrey when he’s a receiver.
“You typically don’t want a linebacker on him unless he has help,” Pettine said. “Usually, if he knows he has help outside or over the top, or just knowing where it comes from, that’s a big part of man coverage, knowing what leverage I can play because of where my help is. But it’s certainly something you don’t want to make a living doing. He gets open on a lot of DBs let alone linebackers.”
The Packers have experimented with a variety of players at the inside backer position next to Martinez. Their first choice was hybrid safety/linebacker Raven Greene until he went down because of an ankle injury in Week 2. Traditional linebackers Oren Burks and B.J. Goodson might be fine against the run but can’t cover like Greene. Safety Adrian Amos has played some at inside linebacker and can cover but isn’t as stout against the run. Ibraheim Campbell, who was activated from the physically unable to perform list this week, could be an option there, too.
On the ground, McCaffrey has been most dangerous between the tackles. He leads the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns on runs between the tackles, with 701 and seven, respectively, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That’s not a good matchup for the Packers, who have given up 964 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns inside the tackles this season. Both rank as the second-most allowed by any defense in the league this season.
The Packers’ best counter for McCaffrey might be their own running back, Aaron Jones, who trails only McCaffrey on the season touchdown list with 11. Jones outplayed Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott last month in the Packers’ win over the Cowboys.
“It’s fun seeing what he does and then going out there on the next series and try to do even better,” Jones said this week. “It gives a little bit added [intrigue] to the game. It helps you. I feel like it pushes you.”