Even though Houston running back Arian Foster wound up running for more than 1,400 yards during the regular season, he turned in more than a couple clunkers. Four times in 2012, Foster was held to less than 50 yards rushing.
The Texans were 1-3 in those games.
One such setback came in Week 14, when the Texans were handed a 42-14 beatdown by the Patriots. Those two teams meet again Sunday in an AFC divisional round clash and, it almost goes without saying, Houston needs a better performance from Foster than the 15-carry, 46-yard dud he turned in back in December.
Without Foster eating up yardage, the Texans will have trouble winning the time-of-possession battle and will find it tough to free Matt Schaub up for his deadly play-action passes.
The key to an improved day for Foster: blocking Vince Wilfork.
It is much easier said than done. The massive defensive tackle was pegged as a Pro Bowl starter this season, and he has the ability to disrupt completely a team's run game. Houston found that out first-hand earlier in the year.
Wilfork's interior presence is a major problem for the Texans, because their ground game relies on stretching the field wide and cutting back to space. Wilfork eliminates a lot of those openings.
This "Break It Down" takes a peak at what Houston does well and how Wilfork blew it up a few weekends ago ...
For starters, what the Texans do well. Houston uses all the blocking schemes you would expect to see from a run-first team -- pulling guards/tackles, tight ends in motion, lead fullbacks -- but at the heart of Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking attack is the stretch play.
The success of that look relies on Foster (or Ben Tate) to follow his blockers wide left or right, then cut back upfield when an opening presents itself.
Ideally, when the Texans block these plays as they want to, the running backs have multiple lanes through which to run.
On this play we're looking at, from the Texans' Week 15 win over the Colts, Foster actually doubled back (yellow line) between RT Derek Newton and TE Garrett Graham. But he also had room straight ahead, as well as to his left, had he kept heading that direction.
It is sort of counter-intuitive to how we would normally think about outside runs, but what the Texans do on those stretch plays relies heavily on their ability to seal off defensive/nose tackles.
Here, against the Jets, Foster ran the stretch play very wide to his left -- the play started at the right hashmark and nearly made it to the left sideline before Foster cut. The key to Foster gaining positive yards and finding that cutback lane, though, is Houston's blocking along the interior.
As the Texans flowed to the left, they managed to create a disruption for Jets nose tackle Kenrick Ellis. He had to fight off a block at the snap, then had to jump over a lineman trying to chop him low.
As a result, Ellis was slow to get to the point of attack -- he managed to take away a backside cut from Foster, but did not prevent the Texans' running back from bouncing this play outside.
That's similar to how the Texans handled Wilfork on Foster's first carry in that earlier Houston-New England matchup -- a 15-yard gain that would stand as Foster's best run of the game.
Right tackle Ryan Harris managed to take out Wilfork's feet as Foster stretched left (granted, this was pretty close to an illegal chop block, since RG Ben Jones appeared to have Wilfork engaged high). With Wilfork on the ground and fellow defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick (No. 71) pushed wide, Foster found his lane between New England's two big linemen.
Notice the difference between that play and, say, this:
Even with a blocker out in front of him there, Foster had nowhere to go because Wilfork had pancaked Jones. Deaderick earned his keep on that play, as well, driving his blocker into the backfield to stop Houston from working horizontally.
Wilfork erased Foster's cutback lane and, without that opening, the play had no chance.
This is the problem Wilfork presents Houston's offense, even when the Texans run plays away from him. That normally would be how an offense would handle a dominant lineman -- just don't take plays into his area -- but Houston's emphasis on cutbacks plus Wilfork's ability to drive into the backfield presents a unique challenge.
The play pictured below resulted in a 2-yard loss for Foster, even though (as you'll see), he looked to have room between his left guard and left tackle.
Wilfork, however, blew by Jones. By the time Schaub had handed off to Foster, Wilfork already found himself in the backfield, which forced Foster to stay where he was headed.
Wilfork made the tackle himself on this play.
OK, so running away from Wilfork did not necessarily work for the Texans. How about flipping the script and attacking Wilfork -- in essence, using his aggressiveness against him.
No dice there, either. And the problems were pretty much the same.
One-on-one, the Texans had trouble stifling Wilfork, which meant that he often bullied his way at least a couple yards deep into the backfield. That presence disrupted just about everything else Houston tried to do. So, instead of Foster patiently waiting for holes, the Patriots essentially dictated where Houston had to run.
Any chance Houston has to crank up its offense Sunday starts with getting Wilfork blocked. Jones seems unlikely to handle that on his own, so will bulky rookie Brandon Brooks see more time? Will Houston try to double-team Wilfork?
What amplified Houston's issue with Wilfork in Week 14 was a matching inability to keep the rest of New England's line at bay. Deaderick had a solid outing, as did Rob Ninkovich off the edge. It will be tough enough for Houston to neutralize Wilfork; it cannot lose other individual battles as well.
Driving Wilfork to the ground or directing him out of position is possible -- teams have been able to do it, at times, this season. If Houston can make Wilfork lose his positioning even a few times, it would open up some gaps for Foster, as well as set the stage for Schaub's play-action passing. But another dominant effort by Wilfork this Sunday might spell doom for Houston.