Monday August 29th, 2011

Arian Foster's status for the Texans' season opener is in doubt thanks to a strained hamstring. (Kyle Terada/US Presswire)

Last season, Arian Foster rushed for a league-high 1,616 yards last season, caught 66 passes and accounted for 18 touchdowns, so to speculate that the Texans wouldn't miss him if his injured hamstring causes him to miss regular season time is silly.

And yet ...

Part of the beauty of the zone-blocking approach that Houston coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison borrowed from Mike Shanahan is that the scheme is arguably more important than the running backs in it.

Shanahan's Broncos were a run-game powerhouse with Kubiak as the O.C. -- that beat just kept right on rolling when Dennison took over the post in 2006. And it's how Denver piled up stats under Dennison that should have Texans fans breathing easier.

The Broncos finished eighth in the league in rushing in 2006, with Tatum Bell topping 1,000 yards and Mike Bell adding nearly 700. In 2007, the Broncos had the league's ninth-best rushing attack; Selvin Young led the way with just 729 yards and Travis Henry added 691. Then in 2008, Denver was 12th in the league in rushing, amassing just shy of 1,900 yards. The leading rusher that season? Peyton Hillis at 343 yards, as six different running backs started over the course of the year.

It took Dennison to flip the switch in Houston. Prior to his arrival last season, the Texans had never finished higher than 13th in the league in rushing under Kubiak. Dennison's arrival and Foster's emergence rocketed them up to seventh.

The team should stay up there, whether Foster is healthy or not.

Derrick Ward, who may be in line to start if Foster can't go, averaged 6.3 yards per carry last season and scored four times on just 50 attempts. Ben Tate, one year removed from a significant ankle injury, has been a star in camp and his quickness makes him a perfect fit for the Texans' scheme. At least one other running back -- Steve Slaton, Chris Ogbonnaya or Javarris Williams -- figures to make the roster as well.

Between that group, there is enough talent left to keep the running game afloat. There may not be one guy that will average 100-plus yards per game, as Foster did last season, but Houston can mix and match and still be successful.

Working to any Houston RB's advantage, too, is the Texans' potent passing attack -- something Denver's offense didn't always possess. Houston finished fourth in the league in passing yards last year, and Matt Schaub figures to put up big numbers again.

It is impossible for opposing defenses to stack up against the run against Houston. Factor that together with the unique blocking approach and how the Texans succeed on the ground becomes even more obvious.

We hear every year at the draft criticism of "system quarterbacks" -- guys that put up big numbers in college but do so in a pass-heavy attack like Missouri's. The argument against those players it that you can drop just about any QB into the rotation at those colleges and they'll put up big numbers. Houston has the NFL version of that working. Foster showed in 2010 that he could be an elite talent, but that doesn't mean the Texans are doomed without him.

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