The Detroit Lions strengthened their offense earlier this month when they inked running back C.J. Anderson to a one-year deal worth around $1.5 million. The running back was most recently on the NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams and played a surprisingly large role in their run to Super Bowl LIII.
While his 2018 campaign did get an eventual story-book ending, it was not all smooth sailing for the six-year veteran. The running back started the season as a member of the Carolina Panthers, and saw limited use before being released in November. Anderson spent nearly a month out of work before the Oakland Raiders signed him on December 5. He only spent a week with the Raiders and didn’t even appear in a game. On December 19, he joined the Rams and began one of the NFL season’s greatest comeback stories.
Now in Detroit he has a chance to stick somewhere for the first time since the Denver Broncos cut him last April.
But does he have what it takes to stick in Detroit? Is he the running back Detroit needs to back up starlet Kerryon Johnson?
Anderson had an impressive run in Los Angeles. In the five games he played—including both the regular season and the playoffs—he carried the ball 89 times for 488 yards and four touchdowns for an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. While he greatly benefitted from both a small sample size and arguably the best run blocking offensive line unit in the league in Los Angeles, that kind of efficiency is unheard of for a player who had been cut three times in one calendar year.
The running back is most well known for his size and strength as a runner. Anderson measures in at 5-foot-8, 225 pounds. He is short but carries a lot of weight and packs a punch as he barrels through runners at the line of scrimmage.
Anderson is much more than just your typical ground-and-pound heavyweight back, though.
He is a smart runner that has great patience behind the line of scrimmage. Anderson is not over eager to attack the defense, and has a great understanding of when and where holes will open up.
Anderson takes the hand off from Goff out of the backfield on this play, and one of the pulling blockers is a step late to seal the edge for him. The running back patiently waits to attack the hole, though, and allows the blocker to pass by him. This seals the hole and opens a lane for Anderson to find the end zone for a touchdown.
While this seems like the slightest of things, this is the difference between successfully converting short-yardage situations, or ending up in the situation Detroit had for years where none of their running backs could do anything other than ram into a pile of bodies to go nowhere when tasked with picking up short yards.
While his patience as a runner is usually great, sometimes Anderson can be too patient. He lacks decisiveness at times, and it can cause him to overthink his lanes and miss them before they close. Sometimes he will miss obvious holes, assuming another one will open, or he won't hit a hole while it is open and miss out on a potential gain.
On this play in the Super Bowl, Anderson takes a handoff near his own goal line. The run blockers create room for him off the edge, and he clearly sees it as he initially heads in that direction. He stutters just before hitting the hole, though, and it closes a bit. Anderson eventually finds it again, and is gang-tackled for minimum gain.
Again, this seems like a small, nitpicky thing, but these slight hesitations happen more often than one would like. Hesitation and indecisiveness can often turn a play that should go for 5 yards into a play that goes for 2 and can alter an entire drive.
When Anderson does find a hole, he is great at making his body small and slipping through them. He manages to squeeze his large frame through small crevices in the opposition’s run defense and exploit any open space for decent gains.
Along with making himself small, Anderson also runs with low pad level. This allows him to avoid taking big hits to his upper body and helps him to fall forward when faced with a tackler.
Anderson also has surprising burst for someone of his size. He can explode through holes to create large gains out of whatever space he is given. The running back does not quite have the long speed to house runs like Johnson can, but he can pop runs for big gains when given a chance.
Anderson takes the handoff deep in Rams territory on this play. Good vision and a good cutback help him find a hole that opens up in the middle of the defense. A quick jab step once he is through the hole throws off the deep safety, and the running back takes off downfield. He accelerates fast to get into top gear and streaks downfield for a 40-yard gain.
While this play does a great job displaying his burst, it also shows his lack of overall speed. Johnson, Theo Riddick and many other NFL running backs probably take this run for much longer than 40 yards, and if they can keep their speed up they turn it into a 95-yard touchdown. Anderson gets chased down way too easily, though, because he does not have the burners that many other in his position do.
He will be expected to do much more than just run the ball in Detroit, though. The ability to pass protect has become one of the most important attributes in the NFL for a running back, and Anderson fails in that regard.
While Anderson usually does a great job finding the right man to block and gets low enough to execute in pass protection when the blitz comes right up the middle, his vision as a blocker needs work, and he rarely can spot where pressure is coming from if it is not from right in front of him.
This play was a pass protection disaster for everyone involved.
Anderson is lined up to Jared Goff’s right and is tasked with pass blocking on this play. He is slightly late to react to a rusher coming from his right, though, and gets beaten easily, allowing a sack. He never squares himself and never even gets a chance to engage in his block. The defender just runs by him and throws him away.
The running back has way too many worrying reps like this one. He has trouble engaging properly, and even when he does, he is bad at getting his body set correctly and usually gets dispatched with ease.
On this play, Anderson’s lack of blocking instincts are on full display:
He is lined up behind Goff, who is under center on this play. As Goff drops back, Anderson cuts in front of him and begins to block the back of his own center. While the offensive lineman was not having the easiest of times in pass protection, helping him should not have been much of a priority. Instead, Anderson should have been watching the edges, where another rusher was coming to pressure his quarterback.
Pass protection is a real issue for Anderson, but the Rams did find a few creative workarounds for him.
this is interesting. cards show 2 dbs blitzing a-gaps presnap so cj anderson just walks right up to the a gap to block from the line. makes it easier for the center and prevents the db from gaining speed sprinting into the backfield pic.twitter.com/4gjj8UTe7W— lifelong caps fan (@MansurShaheen) April 11, 2019
Anderson should be a known product, and this does look like a gem of a signing for the Lions if the running back can bring the same level of play we saw in Detroit to Los Angeles.
But can he?
He was incredible playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, in one of the league's best offenses and under one of the greatest offensive minds the league has seen in recent history.
But when he was not playing in arguably the easiest offensive system to play in, he could not even find his way onto the field. We will never know what truly happened in Carolina— and even Oakland—that saw his limited use and eventual departure. Whether it was a failure of coaching to maximize his potential or a failure of Anderson to produce when not in a near perfect environment, it ended prematurely and 32 teams—including Detroit—chose to leave him without work for nearly a month.
Running back is the position where individual talent seems to matter the least, as the main indicator of success for a runner is the run blocking and offensive scheme. We still do not know what Darrell Bevell’s offense will look like in Detroit, and with a few question marks remaining up front, it’s hard to see how Anderson will recreate the magical run he put together in Los Angeles. The parts of the running back position that require the most individual skill are in pass protection, where he was below average, and as a receiver, where he was also below average.
A one-year deal worth $1.5 million is not much of an investment for general manager Bob Quinn, meaning the organization knows not to expect too much out of their newest backup running back.