It was supposed to be so easy for C.J. Anderson.
He spent the second half of last season tearing up the NFL—succeeding where Montee Ball faltered in Denver—and winning fantasy leagues. From Week 9 on, he was the best running back in fantasy football, with 10 touchdowns and 1,108 scrimmage yards. Gary Kubiak came aboard this spring and installed his traditional power-rushing attack, and it was expected that Peyton Manning would helm a high-octane offense that would guarantee double-digit rushing TDs for Anderson.
But after three weeks, Anderson has been a disaster. Selected on average at the tail end of the first round of fantasy drafts, CJA currently ranks 69th in fantasy points among RBs, tied with such luminaries as Steelers fullback Will Johnson, Saints punt returner Marcus Murphy and Buffalo Bills grinder Anthony Dixon. Anderson has 104 total yards on 38 touches and zero trips to the end zone. He needs a ladder to see mediocrity.
What happened? Can Anderson could turn it around beginning in Week 4? I scoured the game film of each of his carries so far this season, looking for hints. Kubiak says CJA isn't healthy, and can't get into a rhythm going because he keeps having to check out of games. While that might be true, that's not the only problem I see. I also see a back who isn't uber-talented anyway, and who's getting little support from an offensive line that can't get out of its own way.
Let's focus on the Broncos' Sunday night game against the Lions to get a sense of the current state of this rushing attack. Here's a stacked formation with two tight ends, Virgil Green and Owen Daniels, both beside the left tackle. Their job is to double-hit Lions defensive end Darryl Tapp (52), then Green is supposed to slide out and account for linebacker Travis Lewis (50):
Instead, the Broncos tight ends don't do a great job on Tapp, and then Green stumbles trying to get to the second level to block Lewis. Tapp and Lewis meet Anderson in the hole and he's got nowhere to go. Left tackle Ty Sambrailo does a nice job on his man, and this might have been a CJA touchdown if the tight ends had done their job.
Here's a different sort of line breakdown. Peyton has seen Detroit's dime personnel on the field and checks to a run out of the pistol. This is the sort of power scheme for which Kubiak is known: left tackle Sambrailo (74) and left guard Evan Mathis (69) initially double one defensive tackle, center Matt Paradis (61) and right guard Louis Vazquez (65) double the other defensive tackle, and then Vazquez pulls to lead Anderson through the hole:
Two things go wrong here. First, Vazquez looks like he's about to crush Lions LB Tahir Whitehead but basically whiffs (trying to grab him around the neck). Secondly, either Sambrailo or Mathis—my guess is Mathis—is supposed to leave the defensive tackle and get to the second level and account for linebacker Josh Bynes. They don't, and Bynes is standing in the hole waiting for CJA.
Here's yet a third kind of breakdown. This is a sweep to the left where a lot of stuff proceeds according to plan. Little Jordan Norwood (11) cracks back on huge defensive end Devin Taylor and does a good job neutralizing him. Emmanuel Sanders (10) gets linebacker Stephen Tulloch to the ground. Owen Daniels sprints out and gets a hat on corner Rashean Mathis, who is mightily disinterested in tackling anyway. But one thing goes wrong:
Paradis, the center, has to get off his initial block and get out into a leading position and impede dime corner Quandre Diggs. But as you can see, Paradis is slow getting over there, Diggs fires up between Sanders and Daniels and blows up the play. You could argue it's unfair to expect a center to get out there so fast, but that was the play's design.
There are blown or misguided assignments galore on this Broncos offensive line. I wish I could point to one particular weak link, but it's different guys making mistakes at different times (though I have to say the left tackle Sambrailo has looked pretty good). I want to believe that these are chemistry issues rather than talent issues, and that good coaching can fix what ails this line. But we're already three games in.
However, it would be wrong not to give Anderson a bit of blame as well. Here's a play from Sunday night that I think was blocked fairly well, but CJA didn't do much with it:
There's a cut-back lane available to Anderson's right. Lions corner Darius Slay (23) is in the hole, but here Green and Daniels switch off correctly. As a result, Slay is blocked on the play. If CJA cuts right, he's got a chance at a big gain; instead he plows forward into his own linemen and gains five. (You can literally see Peyton Manning swing his arm in frustration.) It was Anderson's longest run of the night. And there's this one:
If Anderson cuts left, look at that. He might sprint into the end zone.
This is what struggling running games look like. They're unlucky with timing, and rushers get so spooked by holes not appearing, they're sometimes less likely to take advantage when they do appear. Anderson is a one-cut, downhill-style runner who probably isn't going to dance through multiple tacklers even at his best, but who needs to display better vision if he's going to ascend the fantasy stardom we all predicted for him.
The question for fantasy owners: will the Broncos turn this around? I wish I could promise you an answer one way or another. I think I've done a pretty good job displaying what's going wrong, but whether or not it gets fixed is up to talent and coaching. Given Kubiak's track record, my guess is that he can get his blockers to understand their mistakes and fix the mental side of things. If they're physically capable of making the necessary adjustments—and in the case of some of these young linemen, that's an open question—I do think we'll see a more effective Anderson, provided he can stay healthy. But this isn't a situation where I can make promises. It could stay ugly.
Christopher Harris is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. He hosts the Harris Football Podcast every weekday. Find it on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn and most other podcast apps, as well as at www.HarrisFootball.com.