C.J. Anderson Blossoming into One of NFL's Best Running Backs

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2014

USA Today

It took them a long time to acknowledge it, but the Denver Broncos have known for a long time that C.J. Anderson could be a high-quality NFL starter.

Anderson is a second-year player who rushed 21 times for 58 yards and three touchdowns against the Buffalo Bills this week. Those numbers make it 102 rushes for 512 rushing yards and four touchdowns over the past five weeks. Furthermore, he has 18 receptions for 204 yards and two touchdowns over that span.

Before Week 10 of this season, Anderson had compiled just 59 career touches for 154 yards and zero touchdowns.

After coming out of California, Anderson went undrafted in 2013. He got an opportunity to go to training camp with the Broncos, where he earned a roster spot after camp. Anderson was the team's fourth option at the running back position behind established starter Knowshon Moreno, youngster Ronnie Hillman and fellow rookie Montee Ball.

From the onset, this simply appeared to be a case of an undrafted back earning a roster spot through training camp and the preseason—a back who was in the NFL but was essentially irrelevant because his team saw fit to make him inactive on game day more often than not.

Except this case was different.

This wasn't simply a franchise filling out a roster with the best other guy that it could find. Anderson didn't get the opportunity to earn his roster spot through training camp and the preseason. Instead, he played one preseason game before suffering a significant knee injury.

Anderson's knee injury should have ended his season. Not medically, but rather it should have ended his season by taking away his chance to earn a roster spot.

Instead, the Broncos decided to not only keep him around for the remainder of the preseason, they carried him on their 53-man roster. Anderson only played in one preseason game, and even though he was impressive in that game, it really shouldn't have been enough to earn him a roster spot with the team.

To give Anderson that roster spot, the Broncos must have seen something special in Anderson's potential. While his lack of experience kept him sidelined for the remainder of that season even after he recovered from his injury, he would have a chance to compete for time again before the start of this season.

As the drafted back last season, it was no surprise that Montee Ball was the team's starter entering 2014. It was somewhat of a surprise that Hillman was preferred to Anderson once Ball went down.

Ironically, Anderson eventually got his chance to earn the starting role because of injuries to Ball and Hillman ahead of him. It took a long time for the Broncos to give Anderson a greater role on the field, but he wasted no time in rewarding their faith in him.

Over the past five weeks, few backs have been as impressive as Anderson.

Credit: NFL.com

Anderson announced his presence with a 51-yard touchdown reception against the Oakland Raiders. On 3rd-and-8, Anderson lined up in the backfield to the left of Peyton Manning. The Broncos had four receivers on the field while the defense threatened to blitz.

Simply based on the personnel on the field, Anderson would be expected to pass block in this situation.

Credit: NFL.com

The inexperienced running back was initially asked to chip Khalil Mack coming off the edge. He effectively executed his pass-blocking assignment before seeping out into the flat. When pressure came from elsewhere, Manning immediately looked down to his running back.

Anderson looked back to the ball, but Manning was doing him no favors by throwing him the football because there was a defender in position to close on Anderson behind the line of scrimmage.

Credit: NFL.com

Manning threw the ball just behind Anderson, forcing the running back to adjust to it in the air. Anderson stopped to adjust to the football before reaching one hand back to pull it in. He showed off natural ball skills and the body control to maintain his balance while turning his back to the defenders.

Instead of bracing himself for a big hit, Anderson used his adjustment to his advantage. He stepped past the first defender before turning upfield. Mack pursued him from behind, but Anderson displayed his strength to fend Mack off with a stiff arm.

From there, Anderson broke Charles Woodson's attempted tackle before escaping down the sideline for a first down.

Credit: NFL.com

As an inexperienced back, Anderson would have been forgiven for simply stepping out of bounds once he had gained the first down. Instead, he cut back infield and showed off his acceleration to run the ball all the way to the end zone.

This wasn't simply a case of Manning making his job easier. Manning made his job tougher. Manning should never have thrown the ball Anderson's way, given the positioning of the defense.

Even though the play should have gone for a loss, Anderson showed off receiving skills, body control, strength, acceleration, vision and balance to score an exceptionally impressive touchdown. The Oakland Raiders defenders may have contributed to the big play, but these are still NFL-caliber players on a defense that hasn't been bad this season.

Anderson finished that game with 73 receiving yards and 90 rushing yards on just 13 carries. His versatility and ability consistently stood out.

In Week 11, Anderson showed off his ability as a receiver once more, adding 86 yards on eight receptions, but he was stifled by a St. Louis Rams defensive line that dominated its counterparts in the trenches. He would need to wait one more week to prove that he could be a bell-cow back for the Broncos.

Over a two-game span from Week 12 to Week 13, Anderson had 59 rushes and six receptions for a combined total of 380 yards.

Although not as explosive as Hillman and not as celebrated as Ball, Anderson's skill set suits the Broncos offense better than any other back currently on the team's roster. He has the power and footwork to show off his excellent vision between the tackles with the burst and agility to execute outside runs comfortably.

For his touchdown run against the Miami Dolphins, Anderson highlighted his ability to set up runs and burst through gaps on between-the-tackles runs.

Credit: NFL.com

Because the play began near the end zone, the Dolphins were able to push their safeties slightly closer to the line of scrimmage. This put eight defenders in position to react to any handoff to Anderson from the shotgun. With just one tight end on the end of the line of scrimmage, the Broncos only had six blockers.

Even if the furthest defender to the left didn't get in position to tackle Anderson, he was likely going to have to make a defender miss or set up a block to get a clean route to the end zone.

Credit: NFL.com

There are benefits to playing running back in the Broncos offense. Most significantly, the defense always has to prioritize the potential big play in the passing game. As such, the Dolphins safeties are hesitant at the snap even when the Broncos pull an offensive lineman to the other side of the formation.

Furthermore on this play, Anderson was also aided by the linebacker to the left of the offense who jumped further to the left at the snap. He essentially took himself out of the play.

Credit: NFL.com

This play was blocked very well, but Anderson still needed to follow it properly to exploit the space his linemen created. He initially moved with his pulling left guard and planted his outside foot to cut back infield at the exact moment that the left guard makes contact with his block.

Anderson had the option to keep pushing further outside, but he's not tempted by the edge.

Credit: NFL.com

Because of the quality of his blocking and his own burst over a short area, Anderson got to the second level without being touched. Once there though, he was met by two defensive backs who attempted to combine in an arm tackle against him.

With the momentum of his initial burst and his physical power, Anderson easily burst through their attempted tackle and into the end zone for the score.

Anderson has repeatedly shown off his ability to run the ball in different ways, and over the past few weeks he has shown that his body can take a beating without affecting his play. While this kind of workload may not be sustainable over a full season, it's hard to argue that anyone has been better than the Broncos back in recent weeks.

Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase told Troy Renck of The Denver Post, "I think he's only had one direct hit (in the past four weeks). And that was one he didn't see when we didn't block Tamba Hali."

The Buffalo Bills limited Anderson's yardage output, but he proved to be a very effective goal-line runner. Anderson's three touchdown runs accounted for just 10 yards, leaving only 48 yards for the other 18 rushing attempts.

Much like with the St. Louis Rams earlier in the season, Anderson's low production was more a reflection of how the Broncos offensive line was unable to handle a more talented defensive line.

At 23 years of age, Anderson is still a young player. He is very unproven and inexperienced also. However, if he sustains his current level of play over the remainder of the regular season, it will be tough to not consider him as one of the best running backs in the NFL.

Part of that is relative of course, as this season hasn't been a strong one for the NFL's best backs.

Adrian Peterson is obviously absent because of his suspension that is currently pending appeal. Frank Gore hasn't been used to his strengths. And LeSean McCoy has simply struggled, while Eddie Lacy has taken a backseat to the Aaron Rodgers show in Green Bay.

DeMarco Murray, Le'Veon Bell, Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster and Jamaal Charles are the recognizable standard-bearers. Just like Justin Forsett of the Baltimore Ravens, Anderson isn't an established name, but his quality of play is tough to ignore.

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