Whenever Ravens running back Ray Rice carries the football or catches passes Sunday, Arian Foster intends to keep a close watch.
And it’s not because the Houston Texans’ star is required to observe his counterpart when he’s on the sideline at Reliant Stadium. It’s because Foster simply wants to.
He would hate to miss a glimpse of a relatively rare breed in NFL circles: a fellow cutting-edge, all-purpose runner.
“Ray’s obviously one of the best in the game today,” said Foster, who like Rice is a two-time Pro Bowl selection. “I have a lot of respect for him. He’s one of those guys I look forward to watching every Sunday. I’m a fan of him.”
The Ravens’ and Texans’ defenses will each have to contend with an uncommonly versatile, three-down running back capable of breaking free in the open field, turning a swing pass into long yardage or blocking a blitzing linebacker.
“I just try to be one of the best in all facets of the game, whether it be catching, blocking, running or route running,” Foster said. “I take pride in being an every-down back.”
It’s a case of mutual admiration between Rice and Foster, who has taken advantage of the Texans’ trademark zone-stretch play to generate 561 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season.
“He trusts,” Rice said of Foster. “Obviously when you study the other backs, he’s the one I study because of patience. We all feed off each other, and it’s a copycat league. Obviously, I try to take a few tools out of his book and use his patience.”
Rice led the NFL last season with 2,068 yards from scrimmage and set a franchise record with 15 total touchdowns, rushing for 1,364 yards and catching 76 passes for 704 yards.
No player has more yards from scrimmage than Rice since the 2009 season, and since entering the league in 2008, Rice has caught 274 passes for 2,468 yards. That’s the most receptions and yards for any back during that span, more than the Chicago Bears’ Matt Forte and the New Orleans Saints’ Darren Sproles.
In a league now tilted toward the passing game, a player who is both a formidable runner and receiver is a valuable commodity.
“Me and Arian and a few other guys, (like) Matt Forte, I just think that we evolve with the change,” Rice said. “The change is being the pass-first league. Arian can catch just as good as he can run, but obviously we all get paid to run the ball. We get paid to make plays as well. We got to be able to catch just as good as we can run.”
Foster has been less of a factor in the passing game this season, with only 11 receptions for 72 yards and one touchdown, but he’s caught 138 career passes for 1,386 yards and five touchdowns. He’s averaging 105.5 yards of total offense per game, compared with Rice’s 119.2.
“He can do both — that’s what makes him difficult,” Ravens linebacker Albert McClellan said. “And he’s fast. Everybody knows he’s a one-cut guy. So it’s not like he’s dancing or trying to outrun the edge. He’s pretty much just sticking it in there and making one cut.”
Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only six players have scored more touchdowns in their first 41 games than Foster’s 41, which ties him with Earl Campbell: Larry Johnson (Kansas City Chiefs, 48 touchdowns), Gale Sayers (Chicago, 46), Chuck Foreman (Minnesota Vikings, 45), Marcus Allen (Oakland Raiders, 45), Abner Haynes (Kansas City, 44) and Eric Dickerson (Los Angeles Rams, 43).
The Ravens are ranked 26th in run defense, allowing 136.5 yards per game, with 441 yards surrendered the past two games. And this week they placed inside linebacker Ray Lewis on injured reserve with a torn triceps.
But Foster isn’t expecting to coast Sunday.
“I expect it to be tougher,” he said. “Anytime a defense has some vulnerability, that’s usually what they emphasize. So it’s going to be real tough out there.”