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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Backfield competition looms behind Foster

The Texans have a nice problem looming at running back behind .

They have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in and . They also have a talented, hungry second-round draft pick coming off of injury in .

The problem is that they only have one football to give them.

“When you go to (training) camp, those things tend to work themselves out,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “Last year when we went, we didn’t know who our number one was. We ended up with the top rusher in football. Our number two wasn’t even on our team when we got started last year, and then we get Derrick.

“So you don’t know how things are going to pan out, but there’s plenty of reps to go around for Steve, for Tate, for Derrick, and obviously Arian’s gonna get his reps. I’m excited to see (Chris) Ogbannaya. Usually the thing that sorts out whether you keep four backs or five backs is special teams. Those guys will have to be contributors. We’ll see what happens.”

The Texans kept three running backs on the roster in 2010 – Foster, Ward and Slaton. Tate suffered a season-ending injury in the first preseason game. Ogbonnaya spent the year on the Texans’ practice squad.

Foster is the unquestioned No. 1 back after leading the league in rushing last season. Ward averaged 6.3 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns as his backup, making it fair to wonder whether he can be supplanted from the No. 2 role.

“That remains to be seen,” Texans running backs coach Chick Harris said. “If Derrick takes off where he left off, it’s going to be tough to do it. But there’s a young guy named Ben Tate that’s going out there, and he’s going to be challenging both backs that are supposedly ahead of him to get their jobs. And that’s what we want. The greatest atmosphere in the world that you can have is competition. Competition will make everyone better.”

Harris, who has been with the Texans since 2002, expects each of his running backs to “push like this is (his) first day on the football field in the National Football League” in training camp this year.

“You’ve got to have the humility to go out there and outwork everybody, get in there and fight for every yard, protect the football,” he said. “Do all the really hard, gritty stuff to be a good football player. Run tough when it’s tough going. Be able, if you get out into space, to make a play. But at the end of the day, not committing any mental mistakes or making poor decisions that can cost your team a win. That’s so important.”

Ward, 30, ran for 1,025 yards with the New York Giants in 2008. His veteran leadership in a young backfield is part of why Harris was happy to see the Texans re-sign him in March.

“I thought he’s a piece that can help us win,” Harris said. “I think you need more than two running backs to make it, because you can lose one at any time. So if you have three, you’ve got a chance. But a chance, that’s all it is. And you just pray that all of them can stay healthy and continue to progress.”

Behind Foster and Ward last season was Slaton, who had 1,282 rushing yards as a rookie in 2008. He had injury and fumbling problems in 2009 and played sparingly in 2010, leading to media speculation that he could be the odd man out in the Texans’ backfield.

“Steve is a talented individual,” Harris said. “He has got to fight. He’s in a four-person fight there at the position. Now we have a guy that’s established himself as being one of the best players in Arian. We have a guy named Derrick Ward that has played pretty doggoned good. We have a young rookie (Tate) that thinks that he should be up there in the mix. And Steve has got to say, ‘This is where I fit in.’ He has got to make sure that he takes a part of our offense and says, ‘This is where you can count on me.'”

So could the Texans have room for four running backs on the roster?

“You never know how long you’re going to have four running backs,” Harris said. “You’ve got four running backs to start the season. Now, I can’t tell you what I’m going to have at the end of the season. That’s the whole thing. That’s why it’s important that everyone fights for a position. It’s a day-to-day make good. Week-to-week. Month-to-month. You’ve got to play the season.

“You’re in a position that everybody’s looking to hurt you or stop you. You just pray that doesn’t happen and that we can make progress. That’s all I’m looking for. I can’t say, ‘Four guys.’ I shudder when people say, ‘Oh, well you’ve got four running backs.’ I got four running backs right now, we haven’t practiced one down. Once you start practicing, you’ll see how long they can last. Get to January, and if you play well, we’ll know about it.”