2011 Season in Review: Running Backs

A position-by-position look at the Texans’ 2011 season

The Texans had the top running back tandem in the NFL in 2011. and both finished in the top-20 in rushing – Foster fifth with 1,224 yards, Tate 19th with 942. No other team in the league had even two 800-yard rushers.

Foster made the Pro Bowl for a second consecutive season and earned second-team All-Pro honors despite missing two-and-a-half of the first three games with a hamstring injury. He led the NFL with 141.6 yards from scrimmage per game and was the only running back with two 100-yard receiving games.

Foster had seven 100-yard rushing games, including 155 yards against Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense and 111 against Atlanta’s sixth-ranked run defense. He was the AFC Offensive Player of the Month in October. He was third in the AFC with 12 total touchdowns, and his 285 rushing yards in the playoffs were the most by any player in his first two playoff games in NFL history.

Tate ranked seventh in the NFL with 5.4 yards per carry, just 0.2 yards behind league-leader Cam Newton. After missing his entire rookie season with an ankle injury, he became the 11th player in NFL history with back-to-back 100-yard games to start his pro career. He had four 100-yard games in 2011.

had 45 carries for 154 yards (3.4 average) and two touchdowns as the Texans’ third running back. Chris Ogbonnaya and Steve Slaton saw limited action for the Texans early in the season before being released.

Converted tight end began the season as the Texans’ starting fullback. He lined up at multiple positions and had five catches for 126 yards, a team record for a running back, in Week 3 at New Orleans. Casey suffered a pectoral injury in Week 5 against the Raiders, and became entrenched in the lineup after several strong lead-blocking performances.

Running Backs in Review
Starters: RB: Arian Foster (15 games – 2 in playoffs), Ben Tate (2 games), Derrick Ward (1 game) / FB: James Casey (7 games), Lawrence Vickers (1 game)

Newcomers: Vickers (free agent)

Injuries: Foster (hamstring, Weeks 1-3), Tate (groin, Week 5), Ward (ankle, Weeks 2-4), Casey (chest, Weeks 5-7)

Notable number: 5 – Players since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger with more than 1,000 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards in back-to-back seasons. Foster became the fifth in 2011, joining Brian Westbrook (2006-07), Thurman Thomas (1991-92), Marshall Faulk (1998-2001) and Priest Holmes (2001-03).

Key splits: The Texans were 9-2 in 2011 when rushing 30 or more times. They are 32-5 (.865 winning percentage) overall when running the ball 30 or more times under Gary Kubiak over the last six seasons. They’re 3-30 when rushing less than 25 times.

The Texans scored five touchdowns on 16 trips to the red zone (31.25 percent) in their first three games, which ranked 30th in the NFL. After Foster returned in Week 4, they scored on 22 of 44 (50 percent) trips inside the 20.

Season highlight: Week 7 vs. Tennessee – Foster and Tate both ran for more than 100 yards, the first such occurrence in team history, as the Texans routed their division rivals 41-7 at LP Field. Foster had 115 rushing yards, 119 receiving yards and three touchdowns, becoming the fourth player since 1970 with three touchdowns and 100 rushing and receiving yards in the same game. Tate had 104 yards on just 15 carries (6.9 average).

Season lowlight: Week 6 vs. Baltimore – The Texans had 25 carries for 93 yards (3.7 average), one of three times all season they failed to top 100 yards. They had the ball for just 27:48, their second-lowest time of possession of the season. Foster was limited to 49 yards on 15 carries (3.3 average) and dropped two passes, including one on third down in Ravens territory with 11 minutes remaining. Tate had nine carries for 41 yards but fumbled inside the red zone.

Quotable: “He’s growing up before our eyes… It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to watch a good player become a pro.” — Kubiak on Tate on Sept. 18, after Tate ran for 103 yards in the Texans’ victory at Miami, his second consecutive 100-yard game in place of Foster

“He’s a special player, and he does a lot of things other backs can’t and he sees things other backs don’t… That last touchdown he had kind of took the wind out of their sails.” – Left tackle on Foster Oct. 2, after Foster ran for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh

“I played terrible. I didn’t play a good game; it was obvious. That will never happen again. I played a bad game. It doesn’t matter what the variables are; I played a bad game. As a football player, I didn’t bring my A-game.” – Foster on Oct. 16, after the Texans’ loss at Baltimore

“Once he gets the ball in his hands, it’s hard to bring him down. If you’re in open space and it’s one-on-one, he’s going to win that battle nine of 10 times.” — Schaub on Foster on Oct. 23, after Foster turned a short pass into a 78-yard touchdown at Tennessee

“I guess he just thought I was going to go out of bounds, but I didn’t.” – Foster on Jan. 7, after tiptoeing down the right sideline past Bengals safety Chris Crocker on a 42-yard touchdown run in the Texans’ Wild Card playoff victory

“He’s kind of like Houdini back there. I call him Abracadabra. You never know what’s going to happen with him.” — Vickers on Foster on Jan. 12

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Jones, Butler among free agency question marks

Whenever the lockout ends and free agency begins, the Texans have several key players who could become unrestricted and free to sign with any team.

Some, like All-Pro fullback , will be unrestricted no matter what. But there are others, like wide receiver and tackle , whose status is up in the air.

Jones has played four seasons, Butler five. Both would be restricted under last year’s free agency rules, which required six seasons for a player to become totally free. They’d be unrestricted if the threshold returns to four seasons, which recent speculation suggests might happen.

Regardless, Texans coach Gary Kubiak said that re-signing players like Jones and Butler will be a priority.

“It’s real important, because they’re a big part of our team,” Kubiak said last week at Reliant Stadium. “And everybody is going into this free agency period (the same way) – whenever it does happen, if you lose players this go-round, you’re not only losing them but you haven’t had any offseason to replace them. So you’ve got a double-edged problem right there. So maintaining the nucleus of the football team is a big, big priority.”

Jones or no Jones, many Texans fans want to know if the team will sign a top-flight number two receiver to pair with .

Well, Coach?

“I would tell the people that ask that question that if you put Jacoby and ’s numbers together last year, they add up to about 102 catches and 1,200 yards, and that would be the best number two receiver in football,” Kubiak said. “I like our two players. I think they’re both damned good players.”

Jones had his best season last year with 51 catches, 562 yards and three touchdowns, although he also had several critical drops. He stepped up in the final three weeks with 17 catches for 235 yards, including his first-career 100-yard game against the Denver Broncos.

Butler plays a vital role as the Texans’ backup at both offensive tackle positions. He started four games at left tackle last season when was suspended, during which time the Texans went 2-2 and Butler drew rave reviews from the Texans’ coaching staff.

Two other Texans in free agent-limbo are defensive end and quarterback . Both have played five seasons. The Texans placed tender offers on them, Jones and Butler in case they end up being restricted.

Leinart, the Texans’ third-string quarterback in 2010, has said that he’s hoping for a chance to start somewhere. Anderson, who had four sacks in 11 games last season, could join a talented outside linebacker group that includes , and .

Those players might be tougher to re-sign if they’re unrestricted, but a four-year unrestricted rule also would result in a bigger pool of free agents from other teams. The Texans have studied the potential free agents time and again in meetings this offseason, evaluating and ranking veteran players much like they do with draft prospects.

“Obviously, we’re guessing from a standpoint of exactly who’s going to be free, but we think we have a pretty good idea,” Kubiak said. “We’ve got our priority list and we’re ready to go, because it’s going to be a small window when they do get the deal done. There’ll be a small grace period and we’ll be at it.”