DENVER -- **In the Broncos' "hot hand" running-back platoon, how long can one set of hands produce the heat of a blue -- and orange -- flame?
If C.J. Anderson has his way, it will be for as long as there is fuel for the fire stoked by his 2013 draft-weekend snub. Given how he keeps the memory of that weekend close with every carry he takes and every catch he makes, there is a reservoir of motivation the size of Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
"It was 32 teams, 254 picks, and 22 running backs in my draft class," Anderson said, with nary a hint of hesitation. "That motivates me every day."
Nearly three games into his turn as the Broncos' primary running back, his temperature -- and stock -- appear to be rising. As flurries flew and the mercury dove to near freezing, Anderson carried the football -- and the team with it -- for 167 yards on 27 carries, all the way to a gut-check 39-36 win over the Miami Dolphins.
So deep is the Broncos' trust in Anderson that for a play that was arguably the biggest of the season to date, they called his number.
It was fourth-and-2 from the Miami 41-yard-line, and after a third-quarter marred by penalties, miscues and squandered opportunities, the Broncos trailed by 11 points and appeared at the precipice of a third defeat in four games. Two of the previous three plays saw Emmanuel Sanders streak up the east sideline in one-on-one coverage for potential touchdowns, only for the passes to sail too far.
With 19 seconds left on the play clock, the Broncos aligned for the crucial play -- and stared across from a white-clad wall of seven Dolphins defenders, one yard back of the line of scrimmage and one yard in front of the line to gain.
Check out snapshots of the best action from the second half of Sunday's win over the Dolphins.
At that point, Peyton Manning stepped forward. The play-call changed. Tight end Virgil Green moved from the right flank of the offensive line to the left. Manning and Anderson re-aligned, from the shotgun to a pistol. And after moving safety Reshad Jones to account for Green, the Dolphins still had seven man stacked opposite the line of scrimmage, with two linebackers showing blitz through the A-gap.
Green turned to his right to seal his side. Orlando Franklin pulled out from left guard to take out Jones, who set up on the edge. And with a wall of orange shirts in position, Anderson accelerated to the first down -- and 18 more yards.
At the time, it looked like a brilliant audible. However …
"To tell you the truth, (Offensive Coordinator) Adam (Gase) made the change," said Manning. "We got to the line of scrimmage pretty early and we had time on the clock and so Adam actually made the change from the sideline.
"It was critical. We ran the ball to the left and it was a good thing that we changed it because we really didn't have a good play based on the look that they were showing early and we did make the change. I think it was what Adam wanted to get to all along."
It was the play that encapsulated how the narrative can pivot 180 degrees in one afternoon. After a week spent as the target of a fusillade of criticism, the offense found its balance, the offensive line paved the way, and Anderson, the Broncos' third starting running back this season, answered questions about whether he can carry the full-time load if needed.
"C.J. is a baller," said Franklin. "He's hungry. He's (an undrafted) free agent, and he's been doing all the right things."
And with every run, his confidence -- and that of the entire offensive line -- grew.
"Coach Gase came to me and said, 'If you give me four here, we're going to call another one.' And if the O-line is like, 'Man, keep calling them,' the O-line wants to keep punishing, they want to keep pushing, they want to keep grinding," said Anderson. "That's just amazing." Franklin sprung Anderson for a slew of runs Sunday, including the 10-yard touchdown that gave the Broncos their first lead of the game, with 5:01 left in the fourth quarter.
With a dose of power from Juwan Thompson, who logged 33 yards on five carries, the two young backs combined for four runs of 20 or more yards -- as many as the Broncos had in their first 10 games.
"Those guys are studs. They're downhill runners," said center Will Montgomery. "You just cover your guy up, and you feel like they're already 10 yards down the field."
A 26-yard run with 90 seconds remaining capped that and sealed the game -- and it could have been more had Anderson kept going.
But Anderson has book smarts and field smarts. This is, after all, the player who advocated caution as he returned from a concussion suffered in training camp by telling reporters, "I'm a Cal guy, so I love my brain."
So he fell to the ground, to the chagrin of fantasy owners and the relief of the Broncos. It was appropriate that on Anderson's last run of the day, the only way his fire would extinguish is if he put it out himself. But it was for the right reasons. As long as he draws strength from his initial snub, more sizzling performances should come from the Broncos' hottest set of hands.
"I have a lot of confidence in myself, and I play at a high level, and I expect big things, no matter where I went -- first round, fifth round, seventh round, undrafted," he said. "You've got to give it to the big boys up front, but I've got a lot of confidence in myself to make it happen."
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