TEMPE, Ariz. — In Week 2 last season, Xavier McKinney shed his safety role and played linebacker, a change made specifically to deal with the special talent that is Christian McCaffrey.
McKinney was a big reason why the Giants were able to limit McCaffrey to four receptions for only 26 yards — although McCaffrey did run for 102 yards, thanks mainly to a 49-yard gain that inflated his final total.
The Giants tangle with McCaffrey again Thursday night at Levi’s Stadium but it is a different deal entirely.
Last time, McCaffrey was playing for the offensively challenged Panthers, under the direction of quarterback Baker Mayfield.
This time, McCaffrey is part of the well-oiled machinery assembled by head coach Kyle Shanahan, who calls the shots for one of the NFL’s most versatile attacks.
If the Giants commit too much manpower into stopping McCaffrey, quarterback revelation Brock Purdy will look to Deebo Samuel or George Kittle or Brandon Aiyuk (if his injured shoulder checks out) to get the job done.
The 49ers (2-0) are far more than McCaffrey, even as McCaffrey is more than any other running back in the league.
“I’ve always thought he’s been a great player regardless of where he was at,’’ McKinney said. “Obviously, it’s always a challenge when you’re facing a top back in this league or even a top player in this league. He’s a great talent, it’s going to be a tough matchup for us but it’s going to be fun though.
“He’s able to make plays out of the backfield, he’s able to line up and play receiver so his versatility, being able to do different things, obviously that presents a challenge but that’s something that we’re looking forward to.’’
It has been an up and down — more like down, down, down, down, up — two weeks for the Giants, on both sides of the ball.
They did not exactly shut down Tony Pollard (70 yards, two touchdowns) in the season-opening rout by the Cowboys, and James Conner at times bullied his way to 106 rushing yards in a wild 31-28 Giants victory over the Cardinals, secured only after climbing out of a 21-point third-quarter hole.
McCaffrey is the standard-bearer among all NFL running backs as the highest paid (average of $16 million a year) and for his ability to play a lethal role in the passing game.
He is off to a scintillating start to the season, with an NFL-high 268 rushing yards for an eye-popping 6.4 yards per attempt.
He has only six receptions for 36 yards but is always a threat to make something out of nothing.
Keeping him contained and out of the end zone will be a massive undertaking, considering McCaffrey has at least one touchdown in 11 consecutive games, including the playoffs.
Back in mid-August, after a particularly challenging session trying and often failing to cover Saquon Barkley, new Giants middle linebacker Bobby Okereke said, “I think Christian McCaffrey is a great route runner but I think Saquon might be the best.’’
Reminded of that comment, Okereke this week said, “I don’t think I said [Barkley] was better, I just put him in the same conversation. Christian is an incredible athlete, Saquon is an incredible athlete. I think they both respect each other’s game.’’
Okereke and McCaffrey were college teammates at Stanford.
“His speed and acceleration are, I’d say, really second to none,’’ Okereke said of McCaffrey. “He runs with really disciplined angles, he’s a downhill runner, he’s a cutback runner and I think he has great vision, great speed, acceleration, so he will be a great challenge for us.’’
Like Barkley, McCaffrey has had difficulty staying on the field, which fuels the pervading theory that running backs should not be paid great sums of money because their line of work is too physically demanding to endure.
Injuries curtailed McCaffrey’s production in four of his last five seasons.
His 2019 output (1,387 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns and 116 receptions for 1,005 yards) was award-winning but he has not reached those heights since.
He was not too shabby in 2022, though, with 1,139 rushing yards and 741 receiving yards.
“It’s just the fact that he’s a dual threat,’’ defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. “When he’s out there wide as a receiver, you have to treat him as a receiver and when he’s in the backfield you have to treat him as a running back. Also, in space he does a really good job of breaking tackles, so we talk a lot about running to the ball and making sure that we gang tackle.’’