Sunday’s Rams-Saints NFC championship game will feature two of the most star-studded rosters in the sport. On one side, there is Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas, backed by one of the most electric crowds in the NFL. On the other side is Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Robert Woods, and Aaron Donald, who will be trying to avenge a Week 9 loss to this very team.
But for all those stars, the X-factor who could swing this matchup isn’t an MVP candidate, a favorite to win Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year, a member of an All-Pro team, or even a Pro Bowler. Hell, just a month ago he thought his season was over. He’s Rams running back C.J. Anderson, and as he’s proved over the last three games, he may be exactly what the Rams need to clear their biggest hurdle yet.
L.A. picked up Anderson in December as an insurance policy for Gurley, who was dealing with a knee injury at the time. But there was no indication that the back out of Cal would see the field. Anderson’s signing seemed like a simple move that would add veteran depth behind the team’s lead back as Malcolm Brown had recently gone to the injured reserve list with a broken clavicle.
But then Gurley was unexpectedly ruled out for the Rams’ Week 16 tilt with the Cardinals, and the team put Anderson to work. The freshly signed back put up a monster statline, recording 167 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. The next week against the Niners, with Gurley out once again, Anderson had another strong performance: 132 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. When it was announced that Gurley would return for the Rams’ divisional-round game against the Cowboys, even Anderson expected his number of carries to drop. But in a surprising move, the Rams kept giving him the rock, and Anderson clocked another incredible performance: 123 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
Put it all together, and Anderson has amassed 422 rushing yards on 66 carries with the Rams, good for a 6.4-yards-per-tote average. Some of that success, of course, is due to the Rams’ supremely talented offensive line—the unit ranks no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and no. 1 in Pro Football Focus’s run-blocking grade—and Sean McVay’s scheme, which is known for creating light boxes for his running backs. But even after recognizing that Anderson has benefited from an essentially perfect situation, we have to acknowledge how wild his production has been. Per Sharp Football Stats, Anderson has been successful on 74.2 percent of his rushing attempts with the Rams, an inevitably unsustainable number that dwarves both Gurley’s figure (57.0 percent) and the NFL average (47.5 percent).
But a closer look at the tape and advanced stats reveals that Anderson has been much more for the Rams offense than just a Gurley replacement. His running style—which is completely different than that of L.A.’s star back—has added a new dimension to an already-lethal offense. Anderson’s ability to power straight through the middle of a defense may prove the difference for the Rams in this rematch.
During Anderson’s first three games with L.A., it became clear that McVay loves to send his 5-foot-8, 225-pound bowling ball right up the middle:
As those charts from NFL Next Gen Stats show, Anderson has seen consistent success running behind the Rams’ offensive line. But McVay’s system uses him in a vastly different way than Gurley:
While Gurley thrives as a slasher, Anderson bursts through the line like a blue-and-yellow Kool-Aid Man. According to the NFL’s play-by-play data, Anderson has run “up the middle” on 37 of his 66 carries with the Rams—56.1 percent. Gurley did that on just 21 percent of his attempts this season. Initially, this up-the-middle tactic seemed like a simple adjustment the Rams had to make when Gurley was out. But after the Dallas game, in which Gurley and Anderson combined for 238 rushing yards and three touchdowns, it seems the Rams have now decided to use both styles to make their ground game even more effective.
As Ringer staff writer Robert Mays pointed out on Monday, the Rams ran Anderson out of shotgun a couple of times against Dallas, even though the team virtually never ran out of shotgun during the regular season. One of those runs came early in the first quarter:
And then we saw a similar run in the second:
Between the Rams’ use of jet-sweep motion and the team’s tendency to almost always pass out of shotgun (95 percent of the time), the Dallas defense was almost certainly not expecting Anderson to come crashing through the interior of the offensive line in that formation. Both of these plays worked to great success—for 12 and 11 yards, respectively.
Anderson also has a knack for breaking tackles, which he says he’s had to learn to do because he’s “slow” and is carrying 10 extra pounds of “man pregnancy weight.” According to Pro Football Focus, the stocky running back is averaging 4.0 yards after contact per carry, the third-highest mark in the league for runners with at least 50 carries. Gurley isn’t bad in this category either—he averages 3.21 yards after contact per carry, good for 17th—but Anderson has been special. He’s forced 13 missed tackles in his three games with the Rams, per PFF, compared to 45 missed tackles across 15 games for Gurley. Here he is bulldozing through defenders on a second-quarter carry against the Cardinals:
Even when Anderson isn’t able to break out of a tackle, he keeps his legs churning to gain extra yards. Look at the way he trucks Niners defensive back Richard Sherman to gain the first down on this run from Week 17:
When Anderson and Gurley are paired together, their opposite skill sets must be psychologically infuriating for defenders to deal with. On one play, Anderson could come rumbling into the secondary, forcing defenders downhill to try for a tough tackle. On the next, Gurley may zip through his offensive line and annihilate defensive pursuit angles like he did on his 35-yard touchdown run against Dallas. That combination of attacks somewhat resembles the backfield duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara that the Rams will be facing on Sunday. Suddenly, L.A. has a little lightning and thunder of its own—and that could give them an edge against a stout Saints rushing defense.
New Orleans finished this season no. 3 in Football Outsiders’ rushing defense DVOA, and that unit was equally steadfast against the Rams back in Week 9—Gurley recorded just 68 rushing yards on 13 carries in that game after the Rams fell behind early. But if there is one area of the field where the Saints defensive line could be vulnerable, it’s right up the middle. According to Sharp Football Stats, New Orleans has allowed a 49 percent success rate on runs up the middle this season, with running backs averaging 4.1 yards per carry. That’s the worst area on the field for New Orleans’s rushing defense:
To be clear: New Orleans’s weakness at defending runs up the middle is far from a fatal flaw—a 49 percent success rate is only slightly worse than the league average of 47 percent on runs in that area of the field. But that weakness could be exacerbated in the NFC championship game, as the Saints will be playing without defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who tore his Achilles in the first quarter of the Saints’ 20-14 win over the Eagles in the divisional round.
According to Pro Football Focus, Rankins picked up a run stop—defined as a run play that goes down as a “loss” for the offense—on 8.6 percent of running plays. That’s only 31st among defensive tackles, but it is the highest mark among any Saints interior defensive lineman. His absence could leave a hole for Anderson and the Rams’ ground game to exploit—one of the few obvious advantages the Rams offense will have.
Over the past three weeks, Anderson has downplayed his success, saying he’s “just a fat kid running.” But his value to this offense is evident, even to Gurley. “I guess it was a good thing I got hurt,” Gurley joked to the Rams’ website after the team’s playoff win over Dallas. Sunday’s matchup against the Saints will put that hypothesis to the test.