Ravens very impressed with Foster

OWINGS MILLS -- Undrafted and once relatively unwanted after a checkered college career, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster is no longer a secret in league circles. Foster has emerged as perhaps the biggest surprise story in the NFL this season, transforming his reputation from an obscure rookie free agent a year ago into a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate.

Ignored by scouts after running into trouble and fumbling too often at the University of Tennessee as well as turning in a pedestrian 40-yard dash at his campus Pro Day workout, Foster is the one causing NFL teams to regret passing on him. "It's surreal in the fact where you're in the NFL and this was your dream as a kid, but not by any limitations I had put on myself because I expect a lot from myself," Foster said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "I think I just had a couple bad breaks coming out of college and things didn't work out for me, but I always felt like I had the talent." No, it's not a misprint. It's Foster who headlines one of the most prolific offenses. It's Foster who leads the NFL with 1,230 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns and 1,709 yards from scrimmage.

And it's Foster who has caused former starter Steve Slaton to disappear from the Texans' offense because of his stellar campaign. On pace for 1,640 yards, Foster is commanding considerable respect. "Very shifty back, very shifty," Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He runs way faster than people think he runs. He's one of those more smooth type running backs. I don't want to go to Eric Dickerson or Roger Craig, but it kind of reminds you of that type of flow when you see how he flows with the football. "I think the thing that people don't give him credit for is how well he catches out of the backfield. He makes some big plays, even in the screen game. He's a very capable back and well-deserving to be the No. 1 rusher in the league right now."

The San Diego native represents a blend of size, power, speed and athleticism at 6-foot-1, 227 pounds.

Foster, 24, is 53 yards shy of breaking the Texans' single-season rushing record held by Slayton. And he broke the Texans' record with six 100-yard games so far this season. He rushed for a franchise-record 231 yards to begin the season against the Indianapolis Colts. Foster initially agreed to sign with the New Orleans Saints after going undrafted despite ranking second in Volunteers football history with 2,964 career yards, but changed his mind and apologized to Saints coach Sean Payton for breaking his commitment. "I'm glad because I got an opportunity as fast as I did," Foster said. "I think the main reason was I looked at the depth chart, and I saw that at the time they had Reggie Bush, they had Mike Bell, they had Pierre Thomas. "They had a stable of backs, and I didn't figure me in the equation an undrafted free agent. Whereas here, they had Chris Brown, Steve Slaton and Ryan Moats. I felt like I was better than some of the guys on the roster, so I felt like I had the best chance here." Foster's talent assessment has proven to be correct.

And the Texans were rewarded by their faith in him by Foster rushing for 119 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in his first NFL start last season against the New England Patriots to close out the season. Texans coach Gary Kubiak acknowledged that he wasn't aware that Foster would be this successful in the NFL. "I wish I could tell you that I thought he'd be that productive, but he has surprised us somewhat," Kubiak said "Not his ability, but just how quick he has grown up as a pro and stuff. He got a little bit of an opportunity at the end of last year and took advantage of it. "And then instead of going through an offseason and starting over, he took advantage of the offseason and was probably as good a worker as we've had and kept progressing. Really taking advantage of an opportunity and playing very well for us." Priest Holmes is the only undrafted running back to produce more yards through 10 games in a season than Foster's 1,004 through 10 games this year. Holmes rushed for 1,012 yards with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2002 after leaving the Ravens.

Foster spent 10 weeks on the practice squad last season, but finished fourth on the team with 256 rushing yards once he was elevated to the active roster.

Besides his prowess as a runner, Foster is prized for his versatility. He ranks second among all running backs with 50 receptions for 479 yards and two touchdowns. "I like both, I think I'd prefer to run it," Foster said. "I think I really enjoy catching it, especially when they get me out wide on routes and they try to isolate me on linebackers. I think I could be very effective that way." On third downs, the Texans keep Foster on the field for screen, swing and other sort of passes. Foster has become a luxury for the Texans as a rare commodity: a three-down back. "He's kind of like Ray Rice was last year for us," cornerback Chris Carr said. "Third down, he's going to catch a lot of balls out of the backfield. It's going to be vital to us stopping him.

"Andre Johnson is a threat, but he's probably the second-biggest threat passing-wise. You can't let him cross your face, because he runs a little angle route very well coming out of the backfield."

The Ravens rank sixth against the run and have contained several outstanding backs, including Rashard Mendenhall, Michael Turner and LeGarrette Blount. In particular, they have faltered against Peyton Hillis and Michael Goodson. Now, they're facing a back that reminds Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison of Ravens Pro Bowl runner Ray Rice. "A taller version, but the same kind of guy," Mattison said. "Ray Rice, you see him, and he makes a lot of linebackers break their ankles. The thing that happens is, you say to the linebacker, 'OK, you better get close to him on a checkdown because he's going to make you miss.' "Well, now you've opened up the hole right behind him and that's what they're trying to get you to do. We've got to make sure that we get guys cupping that when we come down."

Foster leads all AFC running backs in Pro Bowl balloting by fans. He's expected to garner similar recognition when coaches and players vote for the AFC squad.

Despite his individual accomplishments, Foster has remained humble and team-oriented. "I really don't look too much into that," Foster said when asked about the Pro Bowl. "I think it's a nice gesture, and it shows that the fans are appreciative of your game, but my ultimate goal is to win.

"I know that sounds clichéd, but you don't really get excited about a lot of the individual accolades if your team isn't winning. Hopefully we can these things together and I can enjoy both of them at the end of the season." Foster is capable of breaking tackles or beating linebackers to the corner.

"He reminds me of those Denver Broncos guys back in the day," nose guard Kelly Gregg said. "Guys like Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary. He just runs hard. This guy is the real deal." Foster isn't necessarily fancy, but he does have better speed than a stopwatch might indicate. He's built perfectly for the Texans' zone-blocking strategy, picking a hole and decisively hitting it full-speed. "I just kind of take what the defense gives me," Foster said. "I'm a real smooth runner; I think I'm deceptively fast, I get upfield and I can make you miss in the open field."

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