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Houston Texans Run Game: No More A-Gap Attack

Will new faces take the Texans’ running game to new places?

Denver Broncos v Houston Texans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

A wide variety of playing styles fall under the heading of “running back”. Players like Earl Campbell and Arian Foster are two of the undisputed greatest running backs in H-Town history, but are both very different runners. From bulldozers like Ron Dayne to speedsters like Lamar Miller, the Texans’ backfield has featured assorted runners. Under the zone running scheme brought to town by former head coach Gary Kubiak, a variety of backs opened up all sorts of big plays and long gains.

Unfortunately, former head coach Bill O’Brien brought his ‘one-size-runs-all’ scheme to town that saw players like Foster, Miller, Duke Johnson, and David Johnson all used in the same manner—hammer the A-Gap and hope for the best. Surely if you knock on a door long enough someone will open it, right?

Enter new general manager Nick Caserio and head coach David Culley. With them, we get an almost entirely new backfield. While David Johnson still remains, Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay, and Rex Burkhead have joined the fold. Each of these runners brings with them a style different from the others.

While David Johnson is touted as one of the best pass catching backs in the league, he actually made a list of fastest NFL running backs at one point. Sure, he’s no Lamar Miller, but he can scoot. Johnson, by this definition, is best used in the flat on screen passes, where he can get the ball in the open and then accelerate for big yards.

Mark Ingram, usually viewed as more of a power back, also has shown a penchant for speed on occasion. However, Ingram isn’t an off-tackle, Bulls-On-Parade sort of runner a la Arian Foster. He’s made his money running between the tackles; Ingram is a true Bill O’Brien sort of A-Gap attacker with just enough juice to slip tackles and gain extra yards. Consider him what D’Onta Foreman should have been. The elder statesman of the group has amassed 7,324 rushing yards, 382 first downs, and 62 touchdowns in his 10 years of pro ball.

Phillip Lindsay is a bit on an anomaly in the group. He's a smaller back, only listed at 5’9” and 190 lbs., but he possesses the sort of slippery, tackle-avoiding, pinball style reminiscent of Darren Sproles and Justin Forsett. Get Lindsay behind a few capable blockers and expect big plays. With a career average of 4.8 yards per carry, Lindsay has racked up 106 rushing first downs, 17 rushing touchdowns, 22 receiving first downs, and 3,015 total yards in just three seasons.

Rex Burkhead is the Swiss Army knife in this group. You could easily label him as a third down back, and at this stage in his career he might not have the juice to be an every-down player. Over the course of his career Burkhead has done his best work in the red zone, rushing for 14 touchdowns and catching 8 more. His longest career run is only 33 yards, and his longest catch is 32, yet he’s amassed 2,545 yards in the span of 8 seasons.

If used effectively and given a solid offensive line to play behind with a decent threat in the passing game, this running back unit could feast on average opposing defenses. Those are some pretty big IFs, however. The offensive line clearly won’t have continuity from last season. Plus, Tyrod Taylor is no Deshaun Watson. How much of Tim Kelly’s offensive approach from last year will carry over? How much as been usurped by David Culley and Pep Hamilton? Both are offensive-minded coaches with far more experience than Kelly. Time will tell.

Hopefully, even without the invaluable reps now lost to the cancellation of minicamp, James Campen can do what his predecessor couldn’t. Houston’s offensive line coach needs to bring the unit together fast enough to allow this new stable of runners to find holes, follow blocks, and create a ground game the Texans haven’t seen since Kubiak took his ball and went to win a Super Bowl elsewhere.

There’s an enormous amount of change to Houston’s running game, enough to safely assume that the ESTABLISH THE RUN, set up the pass, hammer running backs into dust approach is a thing of the past. If this comes to fruition, the 2021 season won’t all be for naught.