Christian McCaffrey

Why resting McCaffrey remains a challenge for 49ers coach Shanahan

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There’s no doubt Christian McCaffrey is a vital part of the 49ers' offense, but even the All-Pro running back needs a break at times.

During the 49ers' 27-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Levi's Stadium, Elijah Mitchell went into the game to start the third drive early in the second quarter. Mitchell carried the ball four times for 24 yards in that series and was on the field for five offensive plays.

Mitchell only appeared on the field for three additional snaps, while McCaffrey carried the on-field load for 52 offensive plays, or 87 percent.

On Monday, coach Kyle Shanahan shared how running backs coach Bobby Turner Jr. provides input on when to sub out McCaffrey and all of the factors that go into the decision.

“That's when Christian had gone 18 plays in a row,” Shanahan said. “Bobby will get on the headset and say, ‘Hey Kyle, he’s gone 18. I'm going to start this series out with Elijah. You good with that?' And I say, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ ”

Mitchell was on the field for three straight carries early in the drive, and then on the fourth play -- a third down -- McCaffrey went back onto the field. One play later, Mitchell resumed his spot in the backfield for two plays before McCaffrey returned to the mix.

“We just rotate Christian usually when it gets to a third down,” Shanahan said. “But we try to mix it up. So, you try to balance it out as well as you can. That's kind of what happened to us in that [Los Angeles] Rams game back in Week 2.

“All the times we were going to take him out to rest him, there was a timeout or a two-minute warning or something [and] he ended up getting his rest.”

Through 10 games, McCaffrey has been on the field for 510 plays, or 81 percent, registering 185 carries for an NFL-leading 825 yards with nine touchdowns. The Stanford product also has caught 43 of his 52 targets for 364 yards and an additional five receiving scores.

Since Mitchell returned from a knee injury early in the season, he has been on the field for 81 plays, or 18 percent, through his seven games. J.P. Mason has been on the field for 21 offensive snaps, or 7 percent. 

Taking McCaffrey off the field, however, is difficult for the head coach to do considering the running back's production. The ball-carrier is on pace to register over 1,400 yards rushing and 600 yards receiving in 2023.

“You always want to rest Christian,” Shanahan said. “It's hard to take him out because how good he is in every phase of the game, but we’ve also got some really good backups too. So we’ve got to make sure we mix him out, keep him healthy and fresh. It's real random with that and how it goes.” 

The 49ers have a short week before heading up to Seattle to face the Seahawks on Thursday night. McCaffrey will be doing everything possible to recover before the team’s divisional contest.

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