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Christian McCaffrey makes Panthers better even when he doesn't touch the ball

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey will get a lot of attention for the 21 touches he had during Sunday’s 23-3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

But it was one play when he didn’t touch the football at all that may have had the biggest impact.

It happened in the third quarter and the Panthers were leading 13-0. Quarterback Cam Newton dumped the ball off to running back Jonathan Stewart, who turned the screen into a 9-yard touchdown that for all practical purposes ended the game.

Let Stewart pick it up here about why it looked so simple.

"Really, they followed him," Stewart said with a laugh, referring to how the defense was focused on McCaffrey. "[The line] blocked it off and he did a good job of selling some things off and I just walked in."

Stewart actually somersaulted in.

But the point is McCaffrey’s presence made Stewart’s job easier. McCaffrey’s presence made everybody’s job easier, which is why the Panthers made him the No. 8 pick of the draft.

"You’ve got to account for the guy," tight end Ed Dickson said. "He’s very quick. He hits the hole like no other. Stew as well. With that one-two punch over here, it’s going to be hard for a lot of teams to match up for that."

McCaffrey rushed 13 times for 47 yards and caught five of seven targets for 38 yards. He also had three punt returns for seven yards, and would have had well more than 100 all-purpose yards had a 21-yard punt return in the second quarter not been called back.

But it’s the things McCaffrey does away from the football that in time could make Carolina’s offense as potent as it was in 2015, when the Panthers led the NFL in scoring with 31.3 points per game.

The more the 49ers paid attention to the former Stanford star, the more things opened up down field. Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen benefited with a 17-yard catch down the seam. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin benefited with a 25-yard catch up the middle.

Odds are the 49ers paid a little too much attention to McCaffrey on Russell Shepard’s 40-yard touchdown catch, on which the split end was wide open running down the left hash marks.

And this on a day when Newton admittedly wasn’t sharp in his first game after having March 30 surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff.

"He still was a little rusty," coach Ron Rivera said of his quarterback.

McCaffrey would tell you he wasn’t at his best, either. He was disappointed with the second-half fumble and said he "didn’t play as well as I would’ve liked to."

But this was a glimpse of how good the offense can be with McCaffrey and the other weapons Newton has around him.

It began on the opening play, when McCaffrey and Stewart lined up in the backfield together. Newton faked to McCaffrey and handed off to Stewart.

The run went for only a yard, but it was the beginning of all the different ways McCaffrey would be used to set up the offense.

No two touches he had were more significant than a pair of first-down catches. The first was on a third-and-12 play on which Newton was pressured out of the pocket. As Newton scrambled, McCaffrey improvised and adjusted his route like a 10-year veteran. Newton found him for the first down.

Later, on third-and-15, Newton threw a simple swing pass that McCaffrey turned into a 16-yard gain.

"Was solid with the exception of the fumble," Rivera said of McCaffrey’s effort.

McCaffrey also showed he can run well between the tackles. He had an 11-yard run up the middle followed three plays later by an 8-yard gain as the Panthers ran out the clock in the fourth quarter with the physical up-front domination Rivera talked about all preseason.

In the end, McCaffrey and Stewart combined for 167 yards rushing and receiving, which accounted for 58 percent of Carolina’s 287 total yards.

But it was a non-touch by McCaffrey that was most impressive.

"It was a great play," he said. "We knew if I could widen some of those guys in the flat, the screen would be open. We did it just like we drew it up in practice and [Stewart] made a heck of a play."