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."
As the Ravens and Texans square off, both defenses will 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."
Foster isn't alone in his praise of Rice, who's lauded around the league for his skills as a do-everything back.
It's a case of mutual admiration between Rice and Foster, the maestro of the Texans' trademark zone-stretch play that has contributed heavily to him generating 561 rushing yards and seven touchdowns already this season.
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 produced more yards from scrimmage than Rice since the 2009 season with 6,600 yards of rushing and receiving. Rice became a full-time starter in 2009 after splitting time with Willis McGahee as a rookie the previous year.
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.
Rice was rarely utilized as a receiver at Rutgers, so there were unanswered questions about his hands when he arrived in the NFL.
"I can visualize our first day when he came out, and I can remember seeing him return punts, and I thought, ‘This guy supposedly wasn’t supposed to be able to catch?’" offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "I said, ‘We’ve got a three-down back.’ They were smart in what they did with him at Rutgers, but this guy can catch lights out.
"He’s a great all-around back, and he’s smart. He understands strategy and what we’re doing strategically. So, he stays in the game, never gets frustrated, and he’s always ready when you call on him. And that’s what I think great backs are."
In a league now tilted toward the passing game, having a formidable runner and receiver in one player is a valuable commodity.
"I think me and Arian and a few other guys, Matt Forte, I just think that we evolve with the change," Rice said. "The change is being the pass-first league. Arian Foster 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. I just think the way he catches the ball sets him aside from other backs. You got to know where he’s at all times.
“Sometimes it’s our job to be a decoy. Those are not the stats that get talked about, but if you know where Arian Foster is all the time and he runs a swing route and he takes a linebacker out, the window opens up for Matt Schaub to make a throw. It’s the same over here with me with Joe Flacco. We got to be able to catch just as good as we can run.”
Rice ranks seventh in the NFL with 482 rushing yards and five touchdowns while Foster ranks second in the league in rushing yards behind the Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles and first in rushing touchdowns.
"He’s tough to bring down," Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt said of Rice. "He’s got great balance. He’s got great strength. He’s extremely hard to tackle and he’s got great vision. He’s a very good player.”
Rice is averaging 119.2 yards of total offense per contest while Foster is averaging 105.5 yards of total offense per game.
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 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, 48 touchdowns), Gale Sayers (Chicago, 46), Chuck Foreman (Minnesota, 45), Marcus Allen (Raiders, 45), Abner Haynes (Kansas City, 44) and Eric Dickerson (Rams, 43).
The Ravens are ranked 26th in run defense, allowing 136.5 yards per game, with 441 yards surrendered over the past two games. And this week they placed inside linebacker Ray Lewis on injured reserve with a torn right triceps.
However, Foster isn't expecting to coast Sunday.
"I expect it to be tougher," he said. "Anytime a defense has some vulnerability in this league, that's usually what they emphasize. So, it's going to be real tough out there."
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