To a lot of NFL fans, Ray Lewis is known for his pregame dances and his longtime dominance at inside linebacker.
To a lot of NFL players, Lewis is known as a mentor, a friend and a confidant who can be counted on for advice and support regardless of team allegiances.
Houston's Arian Foster is one of countless players who have Lewis' number in his phone, and since meeting Lewis after last year's Ravens-Texans game, the dynamic young running back has stayed in close contact with the veteran linebacker.
The two met up at the Pro Bowl in January, and continued their friendship throughout the offseason, taking part in commercials together and hanging out in Los Angeles. The friends will be reunited tomorrow at M&T Bank Stadium, and while the intensity will be high during the game itself, Foster and Lewis will appreciate squaring off against one another.
"He is just a genuine guy," Foster said. "He's become kind of my mentor. I look at him like a big brother. He shows a lot of love, a lot of respect for how I play the game, and it's mutual. To have a future first-ballot Hall of Famer (reach out to you), it's just an honor. Anytime you have that, you try to keep that up and try to play the game the way it is supposed to be played."
Lewis said he made a point to seek out Foster after the Ravens and Texans met last December because he had learned of some hurdles that Foster had to overcome during rough patches in his life. The linebacker's message to the former undrafted rookie was simple - work hard and stay focused, and you can determine how the next chapter of your life will play out.
"That's why I really ran up to him after the game, to let him know that whatever you want to do with your future and your legacy, you go ahead and do it," Lewis said. "But, I appreciate the way you play the game - win, lose or draw.
"Off the field, he is a good guy - a good, humble guy, and you can see why his talent is what it is. He nurtures it. He really works hard. It's going to be a big challenge for us this week."
Less than a month after that initial meeting between Foster and Lewis, the Texans' running back was crowned the NFL's rushing champion. Foster recorded 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground, and in just his second pro season, the Tennessee product had evolved into one of the league's toughest backs to defend because of his one-cut rushing style and physicality.
Numerous Ravens have said that Foster is the perfect running back for Houston's stretch-zone running scheme, a style in which a team will have its offensive linemen run laterally along the line of scrimmage, forcing the defense to run from sideline-to-sideline, as well. The running back then has plenty of options of which rushing lane to take, be it bouncing the play outside or cutting back against the grain.
"He runs that stretch-zone scheme as well as anybody in football," head coach John Harbaugh said. "He's a stretch-and-cut runner. (He has) great vision. Everywhere is the point of attack in that scheme. He does that better than anybody."
"He gets on a track; he sees an opening, he puts one foot in the ground, and he gets north and south," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He's a big guy. He's a load. You've got to gang-tackle him. You've got to do a great job up front of building a flat wall, playing technique, staying on your feet and not getting cut. The big runs you see, they get guys running sideline-to-sideline because they get the backside cut off and you get big runs that way."
So how will the Ravens go about defending Foster and Houston's athletic front? The key, says linebacker Jarret Johnson, is focusing on the fundamentals and not trying to cut corners by turning your shoulders during the pursuit.
"It takes more discipline in your technique," Johnson said. "They get guys running so fast (laterally), and when you run, you obviously have to turn. If you see a back of a defender and you can't see their numbers, it's not good defense. But in order to run with them, you have to turn. So you have to work on staying square, moving fast and when they cut, you've got to stay on your feet. When you get cut, when you get a guy on the ground, that's where the ball's coming, every time.
"And that's the thing, guys get running laterally, and he's coming downhill and you've got a lateral-running guy ... you're not going to bring him down with an arm tackle. You've got to get a body on him. So it's a great scheme. He's perfect for it. It's going to be a big challenge for us."
Foster posted 100 rushing yards on the Ravens behind that stretch-zone front last season, making him the last back to top the triple-digit rushing mark on Baltimore's defense.
Johnson, Lewis and company will be out to make sure Foster doesn't do it again this Sunday, but regardless of the outcome, Lewis and his friend will be sure to share a hug and some words following the final whistle.
"You really learn a lot about a man once you are off the field, because you get a lot from it," Lewis said. "(Foster's) just a good kid. He's a good kid overall, but here we go. Another one of those good kids that we have to deal with this Sunday."