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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Fundamentals, technique crucial to secondary improvement

Of all the challenges facing Wade Phillips as the Texans’ new defensive coordinator, perhaps none is more daunting than improving the secondary.

The Texans allowed 267.5 passing yards per game in 2010, seventh-most in NFL history in a 16-game season. Only one player in their secondary, six-year cornerback , has more than three seasons of NFL experience.

Phillips knows that he and defensive backs coach Vance Joseph have their work cut out for them.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a better rush in the 3-4,” Phillips said. “It’s a lot of fundamentals with those guys, and that’s why we got Vance. He’s familiar with a lot of the teaching techniques that we utilize. Even though we have young players, we think we can improve them quickly. A lot of technique work, and we don’t want to give up big plays. That’s always been our philosophy.”

Joseph spent the last six seasons in San Francisco under Greg Manusky and Mike Nolan, two former protégés of Phillips. He has watched tape of every Texans game and practice from last season and said that his focus with the Texans’ young secondary will be on “every-day defensive back fundamentals,” from footwork to eye placement to tackling to catching the football.

“It’s going to be being technique-sound, being a good tackler and knowing where to put your eyes,” Joseph said. “Defensive back play, 85 percent of it is knowing where to put your eyes. And that’s discipline and that’s technique. If your eyes are not seeing it correctly, you can be a 4.4 guy and play 4.7, or you can be a 4.6 guy and play 4.4 if you see it quick enough. Eyes are everything for a defensive back.”

The offseason obviously would be an ideal time to work on those fundamentals with players. That’s not happening because of the lockout, but Joseph feels confident there’ll be enough time for it because of the simplicity of Phillips’ system.

“We’re going to spend time on fundamentals, and that’s going to be the key,” Joseph said. “That’s the beauty about being with Wade. His system is not a complicated system, but it’s based on being a good football player. And when you have guys who are good football players in a system that’s player-friendly, that’s when you play fast and you don’t make mistakes. Teams who make the least mistakes, they win the games for the most part. When it comes down to it, it’s the teams that are fundamentally sound and smart teams.”

The Texans also are hoping for a boost from three rookie draft picks – cornerbacks (second round, Miami) and (fourth round, Virginia Tech) and safety (fifth round, Idaho).

“I think all three of them will be active on gameday,” Phillips said. “That’s the first step. If you can get that, then you’re replacing guys that you had last year, but I think you’re upgrading. And that’s what we’re looking for from those guys, to either help on special teams or help on specialized sub defenses, or play. (There) could be a possibility they’ll be playing.”

Free agency could bring new veteran players to the mix, but the Texans are still waiting to see when that begins and which players are available. For now, all they can go by is what they have on the roster, which includes seven cornerbacks who were drafted in the last four years.

“I think we have a nucleus of guys that are capable of doing the things that we want to do,” Phillips said. “We have quite a few guys, (and) then we have some guys we drafted that we think will help also. We lost some guys in the secondary; both safeties are gone, so there’s some opportunities there. But I think there were some young players that showed up pretty well last year at a lot of positions, so that’s a reason for optimism.”

The Texans would like for cornerback to fill the void at free safety, and Phillips said that safety showed flashes last year as a backup. Whether or not they move Quin probably depends on what happens in free agency.

“We think that’s his best position,” Phillips said. “We think he did a good job at corner last year, but we think that he could be even better at safety. So if at all possible, we’ll try to work him there.”

Regardless of the personnel in the secondary, Phillips expects the front seven to make a difference in pass defense. Not only through a better pass rush, but through run defense that allows the Texans to have at least four defensive backs in coverage at all times.

“I think if you can stop the run with the front seven, that even helps your pass defense more because your safeties don’t have to get involved,” he said. “A lot of people talk about an eight-man front. If you stop it with a seven man front, then your secondary can play pass first, and that helps you play better pass defense.”

Whether through fundamentals, new personnel or old personnel in new places, that’s the goal all around.

Thursday notebook: Injuries aplenty for Jags, Texans

Late-season injuries have shaken up the Texans and Jaguars’ lineups heading into their regular-season finale at Reliant Stadium.

The Jaguars already know they’ll be without quarterback David Garrard, who has a finger injury in his throwing hand. They also could be without Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who has yet to practice this week because of a knee injury that sidelined him in Week 16.

Fourth-year quarterback Trent Edwards will start in Garrard’s place.

“I just studied him coming out of college (at Stanford),” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on Thursday. “He’s got a very good arm and moves very well, so he fits what they do. So I imagine that we’ll see the same stuff they do with David.”

The Texans placed rookie linebacker on injured reserve on Wednesday and ruled out rookie cornerback on Thursday. will start at middle linebacker in Sharpton’s place. Wide receiver will be counted on to contribute with ’s status up in the air.

“We probably are going to have some new faces step up,” Kubiak said. “We’ve just got to go out there and play with the same effort we’ve been playing with and we’ve got to find a way to make a few more plays. They are a very physical football team. Every time we get together with them, it’s very physical. Our focus is good today.”

Milestones within reach
Despite the Texans’ disappointing 5-10 record, running back and quarterback have a chance to achieve rare statistical milestones on Sunday.

Foster needs 56 rushing yards and four receiving yards to become the sixth player in NFL history with 1,500 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards in the same season. Schaub needs 103 passing yards to become the fifth player in history with 9,000 yards in a two-year period.

“We talk about having balance as an offense, and… (that) tells you that we went out there and got some of those things accomplished,” Kubiak said. “It says a lot about the job that has been done by a lot of people, but the credit needs to go to those guys up front. They’ve done a hell of a job.”

Under the direction of John Benton, the Texans’ offensive line has paved the way for Foster to lead the league in rushing this season. They helped Schaub lead the league in passing in 2009.

Support for Kubiak
A day after former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips gave a ringing endorsement of Kubiak, players also came to his defense in the locker room on Thursday.

“I think he’s done so much for this organization,” tight end said. “The Texans weren’t winners until he came in. We haven’t been a losing team for three years until things kind of didn’t work out for us this year. But he’s really turned the culture around here. He’s gotten the right guys in here to get where we want to get. That probably goes a little unnoticed or is overlooked just because all of the things that have happened this year.”

Jacoby Jones was asked if the best statement the team can make in favor of keeping Kubiak would be to go out and win on Sunday.

“We love Coach,” Jones said. “He’s a great coach. He’s one of the best coaches I ever had. If that what it takes, we are going to go out and bust our behinds and get this W.”

Health check
Kicker (right hamstring) did not practice for the second consecutive day, but that has been the norm in recent weeks. Johnson (ankle) was the only other Texan to sit out.

Defensive tackle (knee), linebacker (knee/foot), tight end (hamstring), defensive tackle (ankle) and safety (shoulder) were limited in practice.