2019 Super Bowl: Here's why C.J. Anderson could be the key to unlocking the Patriots defense

ATLANTA -- C.J. Anderson went undrafted out of the University of California in 2013 and he was just another body when he signed with the Broncos. He had just seven carries as a rookie but rushed for 849 yards in 2014, and three seasons later, he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. Denver released him a few months after the season and after nine games and 104 yards with the Panthers to start the 2018 campaign, Anderson was again out of work.

The Rams picked him up on Dec. 18, after Todd Gurley's backup, Malcolm Brown, suffered a season-ending injury. In the final two regular season games, all Anderson did was rush for 297 yards on 43 carries (6.9 YPC). The trend continued in the playoffs; Anderson had 123 rushing yards (5.3 YPC) against the Cowboys in the divisional round, and with Gurley on the bench for most of the NFC Championship Game, Anderson carried the ball 16 times for 44 yards.

So it's natural to think that Anderson could again be an important cog in the Rams' offense in Super Bowl LIII, which you can stream right here on CBSSports.com or on CBS All Access, even though the expectation is that Gurley will look more like the dominating back who combined for 1,831 total yards and 21 touchdowns during the regular season than the player who couldn't get on the field in New Orleans.

There's another reason the Rams could lean on Anderson: The Patriots' game plan, at its core, is to take away what the opponent does best. And for Los Angeles' offense, that starts with Gurley, who can beat you on the ground or through the air, and when he's rolling, the play-action game opens things up for Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds and Gerald Everett. If New England borrows a page from its last Super Bowl matchup against the Rams -- a long 17 years ago where the Pats were 14-point underdogs -- expect them to take Gurley out of the game in much the way they neutralized Marshall Faulk, who had just 17 rushes for 76 yards and four catches for 54 yards in Super Bowl XXXVI.

The Patriots won that game, 20-17, in part because the Rams had no Plan B; Kurt Warner was their second-leading rusher (three carries, six yards), and they managed just three points heading into the final quarter.

On Sunday, the Rams will have a Plan B, and it will almost certainly include Anderson, whose running style has been defense-proof since he joined L.A.

But why?

"[My style is] smash-mouth football, it's old school," Anderson told CBSSports.com on Thursday. "The success comes with teammates, good O-line, great coaches all putting me in a perfect position that they feel like I need to be in to win football games. But it's just my style -- I try to hit you in the mouth. You feel it over and over and try to make you quit."

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For as much as we laud the Patriots for everything they do well, their defense was a replacement-level unit during the season (16th overall, according to Football Outsiders' metrics; 14th against the pass, 19th against the run). The defensive line was even worse, ranking 26th in stopping the run and 30th in rushing the passer. Things have only improved slightly in the postseason; Football Outsiders notes that while the defense has allowed just 2.73 yards per carry in the two playoff games, the main difference has been that they haven't allowed a run of more than 10 yards in the postseason. Still, based on regular-season results, the Rams should have little trouble running up the middle against the Patriots, which again points to a heavy dose of C.J. Anderson.

But Anderson may not have seen much of the field in New Orleans if not for coach Sean McVay's willingness to sit Gurley.

"I just think it's the receptiveness -- he's a great listener," Anderson said of his 33-year-old coach. "He listens to us as players and what we're trying to get accomplished, and what we see on the field he sees that. That's what makes coach McVay really special."

So what happened to Gurley?

"I think that the way the flow of the game was going," Anderson explained on Thursday. "Coach McVay made some calls that put me in the game and I just tried to take advantage of those opportunities."

Still, Anderson notes that running isn't all a running back does. In fact, it's a small part of what makes you successful in that position. For all the talk that Gurley was a no-show against the Saints, he still did the little things that helped the Rams to the Super Bowl.

"What people miss is, when we needed points and when we need it the most, Todd [Gurley] was in picking up some great blitz pickups and things of that nature and that was great to see," Anderson said. "It's the selflessness of this team. There are so many different ways running backs can impact the game than carrying the ball and finding the end zone. [Gurley] showed his other skills and some people don't pay attention to that. But people who watch football and know football see that."

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The Rams are underdogs, and that's not really a surprise. A lot has to go right on Sunday for them to beat the Pats. This isn't news. But if Los Angeles can get the running game going -- and Anderson has proved more than capable when Gurley hasn't been able to -- their chances at the first Lombardi Trophy since 2000 go up immeasurably.

"This is my eighth time playing (the Patriots)," Anderson said. "I can't run away from them. I went to the other side of the world and I still can't run away from them."

So now he'll just run right at them.

CBS Sports Writer

Ryan Wilson joined CBS Sports in June 2011. He covers the NFL and NFL Draft for CBSSports.com and CBS Sports HQ, and is a regular on the Pick Six Podcast. Ryan previously worked at AOL's FanHouse from... Full Bio

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