Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

15 Sep 2016

Film Room: C.J. Anderson

by Cian Fahey

Gary Kubiak is getting the best of both worlds. Kubiak yielded to Peyton Manning last year. He conceded the offense to a quarterback who was incapable of executing the scheme the coach would have preferred to run. After weeks of Manning turning uncharacteristic mistakes into characteristic mistakes, Kubiak held his ground. In October he was asked about Manning, who had thrown a league-leading 10 interceptions in six games, and replied thusly: "I'm going to do what I think is best for the quarterback. I would never do anything that I don't think is best for the quarterback. So, that's my plan every day I go to work." When presented with an easy out in the form of Brock Osweiler, a quarterback much more suited to his scheme, Kubiak again succumbed to the future Hall of Famer. Manning replaced Osweiler in Week 17, just in time for the playoff run.

Kubiak never forced his offense on Manning, and he was rewarded in the playoffs. Manning didn't look like prime Peyton, but he played better than he had during the regular season, and well enough for the Broncos defense to carry the team to the franchise's third Super Bowl title. Although Kubiak had achieved what he had been brought in to achieve, his biggest influence on the offensive side was to resist the temptation to change things when they weren't working.

Now that Manning is gone, Kubiak has been freed to build his own offense. He doesn't have a quarterback to cater to. Interim starter Trevor Siemian is just happy to be getting a chance to play, while Manning's heir, Paxton Lynch, is considered an ideal fit in Kubiak's offense.

The running game is the foundation of Kubiak's offense. It needs to be diverse while heavily featuring zone-blocking and making use of the quarterback's athleticism to execute tougher handoffs from under center. With Manning preferring to play in shotgun, the Broncos' running game was severely hampered last year.

We were re-introduced to Kubiak's offense in spectacular fashion in Week 1. According to Jared Dubin of CBS, eight different running backs have rushed for at least 1,000 yards on a Kubiak-coached team. However, he didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2015. C.J. Anderson came closest, with 720 yards on 152 carries.

In Week 1 of 2016, against the Carolina Panthers and their sixth-best run defense by DVOA in 2015, Anderson ran for 92 yards on 20 carries. Anderson wasn't only effective as a bell-cow runner, he also caught four passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Anderson is the focal point of the Broncos offense now. Not Manning nor any quarterback taking his place.

The stats may not have been dramatically different in Week 1 compared to Denver's last game against Carolina, when he ran for 90 yards on 23 carries. But it's clear that this running game is built to last, when that wasn't the case last year. Anderson enjoyed wider, cleaner running lanes in the season opener than he did at any point last year.

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With everyone expecting the Broncos to come out running to protect their debutante at quarterback, Kubiak opened the game with five straight dropbacks. Anderson's first run was the quintessential run in a Kubiak offense. The running back lines up behind the fullback, who lines up behind the quarterback, who is under center. The backside defender is left unblocked, while the offensive line moves laterally to block zones. Anderson is led by his fullback, while his quarterback's athleticism (as well as the play-fake he has previously shown) is used to hold the backside defender.

On this specific play, the Panthers used Shaq Thompson in the A-Gap (the gap between the center and guard) to the side of the play where Anderson was initially directed. Thompson obliterates the center, sending him crashing to the ground, filling a running lane, and taking Anderson's lead blocker, the fullback, out of the play. While the center's block failed, this isn't a problem, because Anderson has the option to cutback upfield. Leaving the backside edge defender unblocked frees the right tackle to block the defensive tackle to that side, which in turn frees the right guard to advance downfield.

This puts Luke Kuechly in a difficult position. Kuechly is a proactive linebacker. He typically blows up a handful of plays each game. In this game, he spent more time out of position and chasing shadows. That was the impact of Kubiak's diverse rushing attack. On this play he is trying to move with Anderson, wary that the running back can force the play wide or cutback up the middle. While he is doing this, the right guard advances downfield to engage him. Thomas Davis, the Panthers' outside linebacker, should have met Anderson at this point, but he over-pursued the play, something that is more common against this type of running play because of the emphasis on lateral movement. The defensive end is recovering from accounting for the quarterback, so Anderson is left to the defensive backs downfield. He gains 13 yards before he is eventually taken down.

Anderson's cutting ability and vision shouldn't be overlooked. He read the blocking in front of him quickly and shifted his weight comfortably to redirect through the running lane. He was allowed to do that because he took the ball from a quarterback under center. He didn't need to wait and accelerate from a shotgun alignment, he could work at speed without having to work to get up to speed.

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On the very next play, Anderson got the ball again. This time there was no fullback in front of him, but his quarterback was again under center. A tight end took the fullback's place. This tight end motioned across the formation before the snap before working back across the field again after the snap. He moved behind the offensive line and drew the attention of Kuechly in the middle of the Panthers front seven. The Broncos left a backside defender unblocked again -- in fact, two were ultimately unblocked, as left tackle Russell Okung missed his cut block. As we saw with the center on the first play, the error of one lineman isn't as likely to destroy these types of run designs as it is in man or power designs. While Kuechly is drawn out of position by the tight end's movement, center Matt Paradis executes an impressive reach block on the defensive tackle, who had lined up in the right A-Gap. Paradis concedes ground, but stiffens in time to give Anderson an opportunity to run behind him.

Because Paradis handles the defensive tackle without help, the right guard and right tackle can combine to double-team the defensive end before the right guard advances downfield to pick up Davis. Anderson again shows off impressive balance and quickness to find the space his offensive line creates for him. This is the perfect scheme for a running back with Anderson's skill set.

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Anderson's longest run of the game came early in the second quarter, a gain of 28 yards on first-and-10. Anderson wasn't the only player with a run that long on the night. His rookie fullback, Andy Janovich, escaped for an unlikely 28-yard touchdown when the Panthers defense lost sight of the ball. It was an incredible introduction to the NFL with his very first touch. Janovich's lasting value won't be on 20-plus-yard touchdowns though. Janovich's lasting value will come as Anderson's lead blocker. That is what he was when Anderson ran for 28 yards in the above GIF.

The offensive line accounts for specific defenders on this play, and the blocking is outstanding across the board. None of the Panthers defenders win their matchups. Janovich executes a key block in the hole against Davis. He stonewalls the linebacker, not conceding any ground so that Anderson doesn't have to make any adjustments. The above GIF has been slowed down so you can see that. When it hits the freeze frame with Anderson crossing the line of scrimmage in the hole, look ahead of the running back.

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas initially lined up wide to the left. When the ball was snapped, he angled his release infield so he could locate the safety coming up in run support. Like Janovich, Thomas' block is ideal. He stops the safety in his tracks to give Anderson a one-on-one matchup in space with the cornerback. Cornerbacks are typically worse tacklers than safeties, and this specific cornerback is a rookie who had trouble making tackles in space more than once in this game. Anderson easily beats the cornerback and runs downfield before stepping out of bounds.

You can create this kind of run from shotgun, but doing so at speed with perfect timing is more difficult.

The kickout block from left tackle Okung should be noted in the above GIF. Okung (No. 73) clears the initial space for Anderson and then collapses on top of the edge defender when he tries to recover. Okung's talent as a run blocker has never been questioned. His only problem has been staying healthy. If he plays 16 games for the Broncos this year, he will be a weapon the team simply didn't have last year. Okung and new right tackle Donald Stephenson are both ideal fits in Kubiak's offense, and they should prove to be valuable for sustaining consistency.

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The Panthers did have their positive plays. With a front seven as talented as theirs, they were always going to have positive plays. Most of Anderson's yards came on chunks when the blocking in front of him was perfectly executed across the board. Take the play in the above GIF. The very backside of the play is irrelevant to how the play ultimately works, but if Anderson had needed to get creative and turn back to that side of the field, they would have sealed off space for him. The cornerback on the play side of the field took a bad route to the football, but the blocking all around Anderson meant that it likely wouldn't have mattered either way. Anderson had a straight-line running lane into the secondary for a big gain.

Anderson has the skill set of a three-down back. He can carry the load and take care of the ball while attacking the defense as a runner in different ways. His receiving skill set is just as impressive. In 2015, Anderson caught 25 passes during the regular season. Those 25 passes resulted in just 183 yards. Against the Panthers in Week 1, Anderson caught four passes for 47 yards. Not only is Anderson an accomplished blocker, he is also a consistent catcher of the ball with the ability to take advantage of space when it's presented in front of him. We know this because in 2014 Anderson caught 34 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns. His production as a receiver should return in 2016 as less experienced quarterbacks turn to him on clearly defined plays.

His long touchdown reception against the Panthers came on a clearly defined play.

For quarterback Trevor Siemian, this is a simple screen play. For Kubiak, this is a master class in design. Whenever you call a screen you need to understand the tendencies of the opposing defensive coordinator. If your offense comes out in this alignment against a specific personnel package, how will the defense react? While we can't know for sure, this play suggests that the Broncos coaching staff understood the Panthers' tendencies. Three receivers align to the right side of the field. The ball is on the left hash, so the right side of the field is the wide side. The Panthers are in their nickel defense to react, using Kuechly in a deeper position so he is essentially a slot cornerback. He's not lined up over the inside slot, he is offset inside to react to any run play, but he is the closest defender to that receiver, even though the deep safety is directly lined up over him.

The Broncos target Davis, who is threatening to blitz at the line on the other side of the field.

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When Siemian gets the ball, he plants his feet and very purposefully turns his hips and shoulders while looking at the receivers wide to the right. This gives Kuechly no reason to suspect anything but a typical pass play. His eyes are focused on the slot receiver. Meanwhile, every member of the Broncos offense who is directly involved in the screen has yet to abandon pass protection. This isn't one of those screens where the linemen barely touch the defenders close to them before sprinting outside. This was a slow-developing screen, slow-developing so it could exploit the defense while negating the athleticism of Kuechly. If you watch closely, you will see that Anderson actually releases out in front of one of his blockers. This isn't by design, but it speaks to how patient Siemian had to be. Siemian takes a big hit as he releases the ball, but he doesn't have to think about this play and he doesn't have to make a difficult throw.

The play design and the execution of said play design put Anderson in space with a cavalcade in front of him. He crosses the line of scrimmage without a defender in sight. He is still untouched 10 yards downfield with blockers available. Kubiak had to have been expecting this kind of play call from the defense for this screen to work so perfectly.

Or he could have just been lucky. But either way, the design and execution was exemplary.

Any suggestion that the Broncos were going to fall off completely this year was premature. Even with major quarterback questions this team is built to compete in the AFC West. With games against the AFC South and NFC South this year, Anderson and the defense could conceivably carry Denver to a top seed in the AFC once again. Once Lynch is ready to play, the offense should only get better. Trevor Siemian, along with an untimely Devontae Booker fumble and some questionable officiating, was a major reason the Panthers were in position to win this game at the end. Thankfully for the Broncos, Graham Gano missed that kick.

It has only been a week, but this offense looks set to be very similar to the ones Kubiak had success with in Houston. Only now his team as a whole has got a lot more talent.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 15 Sep 2016

11 comments, Last at 19 Sep 2016, 10:15am by Noah Arkadia

Comments

1
by Anon Ymous :: Thu, 09/15/2016 - 11:03am

Very informative article and I like the descriptive GIFs. Thanks.

2
by Will Allen :: Thu, 09/15/2016 - 12:12pm

If Okung & Co. stay reasonably healthy, which is kind of dicey, and the defense does as well, they have a really good chance of getting HFA again, and they will be very hard to beat in Mile High in January. They have zero chance of losing 8 games if the o-line and defense have decent health, which means Okung above all others on the o-line stay healthy.

Great GIFs.

3
by cjfarls :: Thu, 09/15/2016 - 12:35pm

One correction: Ronnie Hillman was actually the leading gainer in 2015 with over 800 yards (on ~200 carries), not Anderson.

I will say, the wild swings between what folks were saying last week and what they are saying now about the Broncos chances is a bit annoying (Note: I don't know what Cian thought last week, but the FO Almanac certainly took the "downside" view on Denver's relative chances, even though CAR's projected wins was I think only 0.2 higher than Denver's).

Nothing here is "new" information that we didn't know last week when folks were hemming and hawing about how the Broncos would be lucky to win 6 games. Now, as it was last week, the Denver offense will be dependent on an improved oline play, and relatively rapid maturation of the young QBs in the hopes that they make few enough mistakes to not sink the rest of the team. They will take their lumps, and rely on the DEF to make big plays at key times to win. If that meant they were going to win 6 games last week, stick to your guns and stay with that... or say you didn't understand the situation last week and now have new understanding. Because NOTHING has changed.

Denver could still win 6 games if the QBs start making lots of mistakes or there are key injuries. They could also win 12+. I don't think this past game actually leads us to any different conclusions than we could've drawn 30 days ago.

10
by tunesmith :: Mon, 09/19/2016 - 2:16am

Improved oline play might still be a requirement, but it might be a genuine surprise that they're actually succeeding. The line looks significantly better than last year, even the non-shotgun parts of last year. Surprising when it's three new players, four if you count Garcia being full-time.

11
by Noah Arkadia :: Mon, 09/19/2016 - 10:15am

The potential for doing it wasn't new. Actually doing it is quite a different thing, and it's what folks were skeptical about. Nothing surprising about it at all.

4
by jtr :: Thu, 09/15/2016 - 1:14pm

Good stuff as always. The film study by Cian and Muth are my favorite featurs on the site.

5
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 09/15/2016 - 1:51pm

"However, he didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2015. C.J. Anderson came closest, with 720 yards on 152 carries."

Kubiak or not, if you're only going to give your best back 150 carries, you're not gonna have a 1000-yard rusher. Only Michael Vick and Beattie Feathers have managed 1000 yards on 152 carries or less. Vick was a QB and Feathers' stats are disputed. Even Jamaal Charles wasn't making it on that few rushing attempts.

9
by cjfarls :: Thu, 09/15/2016 - 5:32pm

Injuries - CJ was banged up the first 8 or so games. Ronnie Hillman therefore had more carries yearlong (over 200), but the relative ratios/carries totally swapped in CJ's favor for the end of year and playoffs.

6
by dank067 :: Thu, 09/15/2016 - 2:04pm

Like Mr. Muth I absolutely love watching this blocking scheme operating at its best. Great breakdowns and gifs.

7
by Denaina :: Thu, 09/15/2016 - 4:56pm

"The play design and the execution of said play design put Anderson in space with a cavalcade in front of him. He crosses the line of scrimmage without a defender in sight. He is still untouched 10 yards downfield with blockers available. Kubiak had to have been expecting this kind of play call from the defense for this screen to work so perfectly.

Or he could have just been lucky. But either way, the design and execution was exemplary."

Collinsworth mentioned in the broadcast that Thomas Davis ran a green blitz (if your man blocks, you blitz) a few times that night, and Anderson had gotten him a couple of times before. Seems to me that Kubiak understood that tendency and called it at the right time.

Good stuff in this article. Nobody mentioned the little set and look-off from Siemian before. Glad to see my boys coming around offensively

8
by timtones :: Thu, 09/15/2016 - 5:04pm

Great job, thanks.