Thursday & Long: Arian Foster Leads Texans RB Pack ... for Now
"What they're telling us is to focus on our first two steps," Texans RB Arian Foster said in a phone interview this week. "I mean, I know that sounds pretty simple, but it's all about paying attention to detail as much as possible."
The Texans' running game was a brutally sore spot in 2009, ranking 30th in the league with 92.2 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. Steve Slaton was expected to build on a brilliant rookie season, but instead he fell flat and saw his second year cut short due to injury. That's a big part of the reason Texans coaches say Foster, who ran for 216 yards and three touchdowns in the final two games of Houston's season, will enter training camp as the starting running back.
"I think that's where we start," Texans running backs coach Chick Harris said in a phone interview. "Arian gives us the size, and he made good decisions at the end of last year. I think we're in a good spot with Arian starting it off, but I also think Steve Slaton will contribute for us in a lot of ways. As far as youth and talent, I think this is the best group we've had, if we can just keep them healthy."
Slaton is coming off of neck surgery, but the Texans believe he'll be ready to go for training camp. Ben Tate, the rookie out of Auburn that the team drafted in the second round in April, has been slowed by a hamstring injury this offseason, but Harris said Tate has been able to work in the later OTA and minicamp practices. The Texans expect all three to get plenty of carries, but the way Foster finished the season has earned him the first-team reps this spring, and he's confident he belongs there.
"When I got the opportunity to start playing at the end of the year, I feel like I helped the run game a lot," Foster said. "When I had the opportunity to produce, we started clicking, the O-line started doing a great job, everybody was really working together at that time. So all we're looking to do is build on what we did in those last couple of games."
But Foster wanted to make it clear that he wasn't taking the credit for the way the running game performed in the Texans' final two games -- that he may just have been in the right place at the right time when things started coming together. He views himself as part of a talented group of running backs and as someone who can work together with Slaton rather than in opposition to him.
"Me and Steve complement each other well," Foster said. "I admire the way he plays, and I learned a lot from him. I'm not sure if it's mutual or not, but I know that when he was on injured reserve, I used to tell him, 'I can't wait to be out there with you, when it's the two of us out there together.'"
Harris and the Texans coaches expect that to happen plenty in 2010. Houston's passing game, led by Pro Bowl QB Matt Schaub and Pro Bowl WR Andre Johnson, is one of the most potent in the league. And the two teams that ranked behind Houston in team rushing stats -- San Diego and Indianapolis -- were two of the most successful teams in the league. But the Texans would still like to be able to count on a rushing attack that can gain them some control of the game when they're on offense. And to do that, they know they'll have to take advantage of the depth they believe they have at the RB position.
"We're just trying to make sure our entire group is hitting on all cylinders and not having spotty play," Harris said. "I think Steve has probably had his best conditioning off-season. He seems to be quick and not as heavy, which obviously helps his quickness really show up. He wants to atone for the past year, and he's really determined to do that."
If he does, the Texans believe they'll have some tough but pleasant decisions to make on who plays and how much from game to game. They know they have a long way to go to prove themselves as a competent running team, and they're eager to start finding out if they've addressed the issues sufficiently.
"We've got questions," Harris said. "We've got questions to get answered in terms of running the football and being able to make plays, and I think each week is going to be telling as far as to see how we have developed. These guys have got to come through. They have to understand they play a critical role, and seeing the way they're working right now, I think they do understand that."
This is a big year for the Texans, who have never made the playoffs in their eight-year history but have come oh-so-close in each of the past three seasons. And the guy who begins training camp as their starting running back knows that just as well as he knows how important his role could be.
"Expectations here are huge," Foster said. "I mean, just huge. We are expecting to be a playoff team next year. And we know what a big deal that is. But I think if everybody just focuses on themselves and doing their own job, we shouldn't have a problem making the playoffs."
Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. On those first two steps.