Analysis Notebook: Week 12
C.J. Anderson is the reason the Denver Broncos have righted the ship. Denver was never exactly in crisis, but this is a team that has designs on a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning reaching the twilight years of his career and a ticking clock on defining his legacy, and two losses in three games left them looking at the No. 1 seed in the AFC from the outside.
The offense has differed from a year ago but one of the most interesting characteristics has been the relative lack of a running game from a year ago. Knowshon Moreno won’t ever be confused for LaDanian Tomlinson anytime soon, but he was a player who did everything pretty well and could exploit the advantageous situations that Manning puts the team into pre-snap. The various players Denver had handed the ball to this season couldn’t say the same thing… until C.J. Anderson started getting the ball.
In Week 10 the Broncos were struggling against Oakland. This was a week after being eviscerated by the Patriots in Foxboro, and on the road again the Broncos were threatening a collapse against one of the worst teams in the league. Deep in the second quarter the score was 6-10 with the Raiders holding the lead when Manning dumped the ball off in the face of pressure to Anderson in the flat. This play should have replaced a sack with a reception that lost yardage as LB Miles Burris was in position to snuff it out immediately. Instead, it ended in a 51-yard touchdown after Anderson made three defenders miss, cut back across the field and found pay dirt.
From that point the Broncos were sparked to life, scored another couple of quick touchdowns, and ended the game out of sight 41-17 in the lead.
The Denver offensive line hasn’t been performing as well as a year ago, and more than ever the talent of the guys running the ball is important in this backfield. Anderson has now played 236 snaps this season, 50 fewer than Ronnie Hillman and 39 more than Montee Ball. His +11.8 grade blows both of those players out of the water, however. He is the clear standout in the backfield and he can be the driving force behind the offense rediscovering its mojo.
Despite getting his first double-digit carry game against the Raiders, Anderson has the fifth-best PFF grade at the running back position. If you look at just the last three weeks of play he leads the league:
The most important part of that grade is his receiving score, which actually exceeds his rushing positive. What made Moreno the perfect back for that Denver system is that he is equally adept as a receiver out of the backfield and running the football. Manning needs his running backs to be reliable checkdown options as well as ball-carriers. Moreno may not have excelled at any one thing, but he did everything well. Right now Anderson is matching and, in fact, exceeding that profile.
As a player with the ball in his hands Anderson looks a dangerous weapon. He has that bowling ball physique that made Maurice Jones-Drew such a tough tackle for years. At 5-foot-8 he weighs 224 pounds. That is seven pounds heavier than Adrian Peterson, who is a five inches taller at 6-foot-1 and a human wrecking crew with the football.
Why is that important? It means players routinely bounce off him as they attempt tackles because his center of gravity is so low and the target point they have to aim at is so small. Take this play against the Rams:
Manning is again pressured and throw the ball over the middle to Anderson as his dump-off option. His pass is off target, and Anderson has to dive one-handed to bring it in.
What is perhaps even more encouraging for the Broncos is that when he was loaded up with a workload against Miami, he looked even better. Against the Dolphins he had 27 carries and four receptions (all four of his targets). He received positive grades on 19 of those touches, a pretty ridiculous ratio for a running back in the NFL. He forced seven missed tackles and was huge in terms of moving the chains and keeping the offense on track.
Peyton Manning is the key to the Denver offense. That is no secret, but while he can mitigate the effects of an offensive line blocking worse than they were a year ago, much of that is out of his hands when it comes to checkdown passes and yards after the catch. A running back has the capacity to make those plays look fantastic or terrible depending on what he does after the catch. Manning will give his running backs the opportunities to make plays, but Anderson looks like the only one capable of paying him back for those chances.
If he finishes the season as the workhorse he has become over the past three weeks then this is a completely different Broncos offense to try and defend. It suddenly has another dimension you need to contend with, and a weapon you need to swarm over to ensure he can’t punish you.
Denver might not be the best team in the AFC anymore, but with Anderson in the lineup this is a completely different animal, and their chances of succeeding come January get a big boost. C.J. Anderson just might be the reason Manning gets that elusive second ring.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam