The sizzle was obvious. The substance, less so.
On the Carolina Panthers’ second offensive play in Friday’s 27-20 preseason victory over the Miami Dolphins, the call was a simple run. But Christian McCaffrey exploded through the team’s offensive line and scampered 71 yards nearly untouched into the end zone.
It was a spark, the sort the Panthers wanted more of from McCaffrey last season and are more dedicated to creating this year. It was the type of run where all of Bank of America Stadium stood up at once, and craned their necks to watch No. 22 sprint unabated.
Everybody … including the blockers who gave him the lane to run through. And it was the most unlikely of blockers who made some of the greatest impact.
“I saw a heck of a gap,” McCaffrey said at halftime. “The offensive line did a great job. I think it was (Greg) Van Roten on a pull from the left guard. (Ryan) Kalil, Trai (Turner), Taylor (Moton) and Matt (Kalil) — they all did an unbelievable job. The tight ends and Alex (Armah) did a great job on the block.
“It’s just my job to hit the hole, find the crease and go.”
Van Roten, who has stepped into the vacant left guard spot the latter half of training camp, pulled on the play and picked up two Dolphins defenders at once. Matt Kalil, who struggled for most of Friday night, actually blocked a trailing linebacker and set McCaffrey free.
Then again, those two are starting offensive linemen — they’re supposed to make those blocks.
But a rookie tight end and a second-year fullback, two players still learning their positions? Not so much.
Except, they did.
Alex Armah, a 2017 sixth-rounder who the team converted from defensive end/linebacker to fullback, only played in nine games as a rookie while he learned the position. That continued into this offseason, where Armah impressed at tight end (another of his college positions) as well as fullback. But given new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s inclination to use a fullback on offense, Armah’s development in the backfield was crucial.
“To watch him do the dirty work, it’s tough and he handles it very well,” coach Ron Rivera said of Armah. “He’s one of those guys who plays with an edge and it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
If Friday was any indication, Armah truly has embraced the “dirty work” that comes with playing NFL fullback. On the McCaffrey touchdown, he pulled and picked up Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake … and absolutely stonewalled him. Wake even stumbled backward as Armah pushed him out towards the sideline.
“This being my second year, I feel like I’ve got even more of a grasp on this offense,” Armah said, “and I’m pretty sure it’s starting to show up, too — getting to my blocks quicker, getting off the ball and all that good stuff.”
As for what he was thinking once McCaffrey popped free?
“Next level,” Armah said with a laugh. “Keep working, and meet him in the end zone.”
But Armah’s block was only one half of McCaffrey’s lane. The other belonged to rookie Ian Thomas, an athletic but raw tight end. At training camp, Thomas earned praise for his natural athleticism, strong hands and improved route-running.
Blocking, not as much.
Yet there he was, charging ahead to the second level and sealing Miami linebacker Raekwon McMillan on the inside. McMillan didn’t fall back like Wake had, but the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Thomas did more than enough to give McCaffrey a lane.
So as McCaffrey squirted through the line, there they were — Armah on the right, Thomas on the left — giving him a clear lane to run.
With No. 2 tight end Chris Manhertz out with a broken foot, Carolina’s second tight end slot behind Greg Olsen is up for grabs. So far, Thomas has been the man to fill it. Like Armah last year, though, he still has much in the way of detail and intricacy to learn about the position.
That said, there are some things Thomas needs little coaching on. Example: a quarter after McCaffrey’s touchdown, Cam Newton found the rookie tight end streaking to the right side of the field. He hit him in stride, and Thomas did the rest, sprinting down the sideline for a 27-yard score.
“(Ian) doesn’t even know how good he’s capable of being. Just walking into a situation, he could not have been in a better situation,” Newton said. “When you see plays like this happen, his natural skill set takes over — run after catch, being effective in the passing game as well as the running game.”
Or as Thomas diagnosed his score: “I saw green grass so I ran fast.”
That touchdown, and McCaffrey’s, may make the ESPN highlights. That’s fine — both were impressive athletic feats, and both runners displayed impressive breakaway speed to evade defenders.
But if you get the chance, pause that McCaffrey highlight for a second. Marvel at the unheralded blocks from the lesser-known players on this Carolina Panthers team.
There’s bound to be more where they came from.