With starting running back Ronnie Hillman likely to be out, coach John Fox believes his Denver Broncos are again in capable hands following C.J. Anderson’s breakout performance.
The AFC West leaders also have Peyton Manning to rely on, though they might want to establish a running game against a St. Louis Rams team that has been able to get after the quarterback.
The Broncos will try to maintain their slim division lead over surging Kansas City on Sunday when they visit the NFC West-worst Rams, who are again turning their struggling offense over to Shaun Hill.
Hillman, who has a pair of 100-yard rushing efforts and three touchdowns on the season, sustained a sprained left foot in last Sunday’s 41-17 rout of Oakland.
With Hillman likely to miss at least two weeks, the Broncos (7-2) are expected to ride the red-hot Anderson even though former starter Montee Ball is set to make his return this week.
Anderson finished with a career-best 163 total yards against the Raiders, including a 51-yard touchdown on a screen pass that gave Denver the lead for good in the second quarter. He had a career-high 90 rushing yards on 13 carries as the Broncos bounced back from an ugly loss at New England to remain one game up on the Chiefs, winners of four in a row.
"(Anderson’s performance) speaks to the depth we have," Fox said. "We’ve been pretty fortunate to have some guys stepping in and doing a good job. I think it’s a tribute to those guys being on top of their craft."
Fox’s team ranks 26th with 96.8 rushing yards per game, though it’s run for at least 115 in four of the past five games. The only exception was the 43-21 loss to the Patriots in which the Broncos trailed by 20 in the first half.
St. Louis ranks 27th with 27.9 points allowed per game and 25th against the run at 124.2, though it limited Arizona’s Andre Ellington to a season-low 23 yards on 18 carries last Sunday.
The Rams (3-6) are also tied for the league lead with 16 sacks since Week 7. After finishing with a season-high eight in an upset of San Francisco on Nov. 2, they had three more in last Sunday’s 31-14 loss at Arizona.
Star end Robert Quinn recorded six sacks in those four games, tied with Kansas City’s Justin Houston for the most in the league in that span.
Quinn and the Rams will try to get to Manning, who overcame a slow start to go 31 of 44 for 340 yards with a season-high five touchdowns and two interceptions against the Raiders.
Manning has thrown at least two TD passes in a league-record 15 straight games and has recorded one in 48 in a row, moving past Johnny Unitas for third place all-time. He’s thrown for five scores and one pick in three career games against St. Louis.
Julius Thomas tied Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Frank Clarke and Bill Groman with a league-record 12 touchdown receptions after nine games. He’s also the first tight end with at least 12 TD catches in consecutive seasons.
The Rams aren’t having nearly as much success on offense, averaging 11.3 points and 212.3 yards in their last three.
Austin Davis has completed 57.0 percent for 481 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions during that stretch, including two picks and a lost fumble on three consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter last Sunday.
After coach Jeff Fisher originally said he had no plans to make a change, the Rams announced Wednesday that Hill will make his first start since the season opener. The nine-year pro went 8 of 13 for 81 yards and one interception before heading the bench in that 34-6 loss to Minnesota.
"Obviously it sparks your excitement a little bit and all those things, but as far as preparation goes, everything’s the same," Hill said.
St. Louis would like to make things easier on Hill by moving the ball on the ground. The Rams, however, have reached 100 rushing yards once in their last five games and face a Denver team that allows a league-low 67.0 per contest.
The Broncos have dropped four straight on the road in the series since a 27-24 win in Los Angeles on Dec. 12, 1982.