SANTA CLARA — Christian McCaffrey was more than just an X-factor in his 49ers starting debut last year in Los Angeles. He was the X, Y and Z, seeing how he produced touchdowns as a passer, receiver and rusher.
“Obviously it was a good one last year,” McCaffrey said Thursday at his locker. “Each year is a new year, so we’ve got to come in ready to go.”
Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris knows all too well McCaffrey’s capabilities. Morris was an Atlanta Falcons assistant in McCaffrey’s first four years on the Carolina Panthers.
“He is a pain in the neck. I feel like he’s following me,” Morris told Los Angeles reporters Thursday. “He was in the NFC South, then he followed me to the West, just to torture me a little bit more, right? You’re talking about one of the best who’s played in our game from a dual standpoint.”
Or from a triple-threat standpoint.
Last Oct. 30, in a 31-14 win over the host Rams, McCaffrey’s 34-yard option pass to Brandon Aiyuk pulled the 49ers even at 7, then McCaffrey put the 49ers up 17-14 by catching Jimmy Garoppolo’s 9-yard touchdown pass, followed by a McCaffrey 1-yard touchdown run. Hello, hat trick! Only three other NFL players had pulled that off since 1970 (Walter Payton, David Patten, LaDainian Tomlinson).
“He can skinny through holes and make plays for 50-, 60-yard runs on you,” Rams defensive star Aaron Donald told reporters Thursday. “You have to be stout and disciplined, and when your opportunities come, you take those chances.”
Wide receiver Deebo Samuel did not play that last visit to the Rams because of a hamstring injury, but he noted it was “really cool” to watch how McCaffrey — and coach Kyle Shanahan’s play calls — attacked the Rams.
“It’s like a Swiss Army knife. Kyle does a really good job of putting him in different positions and the way they get him the ball,” said Samuel, whose versatility has been a staple of the offense, too.
Brock Purdy also was an excited observer on the sideline, as the No. 2 quarterback.
“I remember (McCaffrey’s) first week with Kansas City, I was excited how we were going to use Christian in our offense,” Purdy said. “Once he had a full week under his belt going into the Rams game, with his versatility and how we’d be able to use him, from the sidelines, I was, “This is going to be fun to watch.’ When he performed and did what he did, it was, ‘Man, this is going to be fun.’ ”
McCaffrey thought it’d be fun, too, based on his teammates’ reactions.
“There is such a lack of ego in the locker room and that starts with the leaders on this team,” McCaffrey added. “That’s why when I came in, it was such an eye-opening experience and such a cool locker room to be a part of. You have so many guys on this team who are unbelievable at what they do, but also willing to block downfield, like B.A. and Ray-Ray.”
Brandon Aiyuk and Ray-Ray McCloud threw blocks to clear McCaffrey’s path on a 65-yard touchdown run right after halftime Sunday, giving the 49ers the momentum for a 30-7 rout of the Steelers. McCaffrey’s debut produced an NFL-best 152 rushing yards (22 carries) and 17 receiving yards (three catches, five targets).
“There is no, ‘What do you have to stop, the run or the pass?’ when you’re talking about a guy like this,” Morris added. “This guy is just dominant in every facet. You have to plan to slow him down, to make some plays. But they are loaded with playmakers and that’s what makes those guys go.”
And that is exactly what the 49ers’ playmakers expected upon McCaffrey’s trade.
“Right when we got him, I was, ‘It’s like Madden (video game) now for Kyle (Shanahan). He can make up whatever he wants,’ ” George Kittle said. “It’s like, who do you want to take away? Last week, Minkah (Fitzpatrick, the Steelers safety) followed me around the field. That left Aiyuk, Deebo and Christian one one-on-one with everyone else. Congratulations, how’d that go for you?”
“I appreciate George saying that,” McCaffrey responded, “but the thing I love about this team is the run game is a commitment of all 11 guys out there. That is what makes it so special.”
McCaffrey did not get much rest in garbage time Sunday. He churned out three consecutive runs midway through the fourth quarter with a 20-point lead. Shanahan opted not to pull him or other mainstays earlier, because of a lesson learned from the 2021 opener at Detroit, where the 49ers nearly squandered a 24-point lead in the fourth quarter of a 41-33 win.
Even though defensive coordinator Steve Wilks is calling games upstairs from the coach’s booth, he stays in constant communication with his position coaches, and they relayed throughout Sunday’s opener that Nick Bosa was responding well to his 35-snap workload after reporting to the team three days earlier. “He was great in regards to that and no setbacks this week,” Wilks said.
As for Drake Jackson’s three sacks, Wilks described them as “the fruits for his labor” after an offseason spent getting bigger and stronger. Helping Jackson, Bosa and all other edge rushers were the 49ers’ defensive tackles, with Wilks complimenting starters Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave.
The 49ers produced 391 yards and 30 points in their debut, but that wasn’t enough to earn satisfaction from Chris Foerster, their offensive line coach and run-game coordinator.
“Overall the offensive line didn’t play good enough as a whole. Everybody could have played a lot better,” Foerster said. “We did enough things well to have production on offense. But it’s not to the standard guys want to play to.”
Rather than specify how right tackle Colton McKivitz faltered on T.J. Watt’s three sacks, Foerster said: “Great learning experience for him and our team. But it’s got to get better.”
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Cornerback Sam Womack did not practice because of a knee injury. All nine of his snaps in the season opener came on special teams, including a tackle at the 2-yard line in punt coverage. He had four special teams tackles as a rookie last season, plus two in the playoffs.
Linebacker Dre Greenlaw (groin) returned to practice after missing Wednesday’s session. Tight end George Kittle remains a full participant and dismissed a groin injury that the 49ers say limited him last week in practice.
Kittle’s description of his difficult, 11-yard catch on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers 25 that kept alive the 49ers’ opening touchdown drive: “It is difficult. I appreciate that. It’s called spirit motion. You have to go all the way across, influencing the outside linebacker off the edge. It’s up to him if he wants to set the edge or not, which he definitely tried to do. It made me to lose a lot of ground and then have to get back up field for a good angle for Brock to throw it. I’m so glad he threw it, because we ran it in practice, he actually didn’t throw it because he didn’t like the angle. I’m glad he did this time and gave me a chance to run with it, because it was very fun.”