If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: The Broncos want to play tough defense and run the ball. Head coach Gary Kubiak is brilliant in creating 1,000-yard rushers. Denver needs to control the clock and limit mistakes to win.
It’s all true, but they’re not doing it. And much of that comes back to running back C.J. Anderson.
There was never a time when running the ball made more sense than last Sunday, against the Falcons. Atlanta had the No. 1 offense in the NFL. The Broncos were starting a rookie quarterback for his first game ever.
Running would have been a two-fold victory. First, it takes pressure off of that young quarterback so he doesn’t have to try to win the game. It opens up the passing game for him and makes the pass rush back off. If they don’t, the running game carries the team and there are fewer chances for interceptions, fumbles, and other rookie mistakes.
Second, it eats the clock and keeps Atlanta’s offense off the field. Even if they make plays, you limit overall production just by limiting how many chances they get. You make it harder for them to find a rhythm. Best of all, you keep your defense rested and ready to go up against the league’s best offense.
If you watched the game, you may recognize all of that as exactly the opposite of what happened. The Broncos didn’t run the ball well, the defense got worn out, and the Falcons gashed them on the ground and through the air.
So, where was CJ Anderson? If there was ever a game for him to put up 150 yards and two touchdowns, this was it – especially with Atlanta’s beat-up LB group, ranked as one of the worst in the NFL. Instead, he put up just 41 yards on the day. He never scored a TD. While he did lead the team in carries, he only had 11. That’s an average of 3.7 yards per carry.
You can talk all you want about how this offense is built around the run and careful passing, but something is clearly wrong when your lead running back gets just 11 carries, especially when quarterback Paxton Lynch had six carries.
On the other side, the Falcons gave Devonta Freeman 23 carries. He put up 88 yards and a TD. Those are far closer to the numbers the Broncos wanted out of Anderson, and he didn’t deliver. Freeman did it against one of the NFL’s best defenses, but Anderson failed to do it against one of the worst.
It’s not all his fault. The Broncos also got down in this game, meaning they had to throw to try to catch up. The defense got gashed in a way it hasn’t all year, even right out of the gate, so the Broncos couldn’t build up a 10-point lead and sit on it, which they would have loved to do. Freeman’s average was 3.82 yards per carry, which isn’t actually that much better than Anderson’s 3.7. He just got more touches. Perhaps the Broncos planned to give Anderson those touches and then simply couldn’t because of how the game played out.
But this also isn’t the first time Anderson hasn’t lived up to the hype. He had 20 carries for 92 yards in the opener, and his stats have fallen ever since. He had 74 yards against the Colts, a solid day, but then only 37 yards against the Bengals – who, to be fair, went all out to stop him. He got 19 carries against Tampa and only managed 49 yards. Then he had his worst game of the year against the Falcons, when the Broncos needed him the most.
Denver has young quarterbacks and a tough defense, and they made Anderson the 10th highest paid RB in the NFL because they thought pounding the ball would help them win. And it absolutely can, but only if Anderson plays like the 10th best RB in the NFL. Right now, his 293 yards rank him 17th, even though his 84 attempts rank 11th. He’s clearly under-performing, and, in yards per carry – the most telling stat by far – he ranks just 29th.
Again, it’s true that it’s not all his fault, but he has to step up and overcome the obstacles that get in his way, establishing himself as a dominant back even when it’s not easy. That’s the type of runner the Broncos desperately need him to be.