Over the next few days, you’ll hear and read plenty about Texans running back Arian Foster.
You’ll hear how Foster won the rushing title last year in just his second NFL season. You’ll read about how he went from practice squad player to member of Houston’s 53-man roster to recording 119 yards and two touchdowns in a single game, all within a four-month span. You might come upon stories about how last week Foster became just the seventh undrafted player in NFL history to rush for more than 100 yards in a playoff game.
You’re going to find those stories all over the place (yeah, you just heard it here, too; I know), so I’m going to write about a different aspect of Houston’s rushing attack, which ranks second in the league at 153 yards per game.
Instead of talking specifically about Foster, I want to discuss the scheme which allows the two-time Pro Bowl back to have so much success - Gary Kubiak/Mike Shanahan’s patented zone-stretch system.
In the zone-stretch running scheme, the entire offensive line moves laterally along the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball, forcing the defense to move toward the sideline, as well.
It’s a tough running style to defend, because the running back has plenty of options when it comes to which rushing lane to take. He can bounce the play outside and try and beat the defense to the edge, or cut back against the grain when he sees an opening at any point.
“It challenges the whole width of the front, basically,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. “It gets the (defensive) front moving, and it challenges them to expand with it - move with the front, stay square, maintain gap control and control the blocker. What they try to do is basically expand the area that you have to cover horizontally and then find a crease. A back like Arian Foster finds the crease a lot of times. So it’s not like it’s running in one hole. It can basically run anywhere from the tight end to the backside tackle.”
How well do the Texans run this scheme? Well enough that the Ravens decided to implement some of it in their own offense this season, and well enough that Ravens center Matt Birk (a 14-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowler) went up to Texans center Chris Myers following the teams’ Week 6 meeting at M&T Bank Stadium and asked him for pointers on how to refine his own technique.
Foster is clearly a very talented back. He’s physical, tough to bring down in the open field and has breakaway speed. Once he gets a step on you, he’s gone.
But the Texans’ ability to run the zone-stretch scheme has allowed them to have plenty of success even when Foster needs a breather or has been stuck on the sideline due to injury. Ben Tate, Houston’s backup running back, recorded 942 rushing yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry this season.
The key to stopping this Texans rushing attack, Ravens defenders say, is being quick off the ball and then making sure not to take any shortcuts to get to the action. When you turn your shoulders to try and pursue the ball carrier, that’s when you can get beat.
Baltimore’s defense did an excellent job of following that script earlier this season, limiting Foster to 49 yards on 15 carries back in that October matchup.
“You’ve got to stay square,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “You’ve got to set the edge initially and you’ve got to stay square. The minute you turn and try to run with him, usually you’ll end up getting cut. And when somebody gets cut, there’s a huge gap. So you’ve got to stay square, stay on your feet and you’ve got to try to knock them back as much as you can.
“That’s what they do, they’re just running and waiting for somebody to turn out of their gap or to run upfield or get cut. And when you do, there’s a huge hole.”