Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
The Texans ranked seventh in rushing yards in 2010 and second in 2011 before dropping off over the last two seasons.
What changed from 2010 and 2011 when they were so successful?
They lost four of their best run-blockers and didn't do a great job of replacing them. Losing Vonta Leach, Eric Winston, Mike Brisiel and Joel Dreessen had an obvious negative impact on the production level of the Texans' running game.
Second-year starter Brandon Brooks, who the Texans selected in the third round in 2012, played well last year and has looked good during OTAs, leading some, like Patrick Starr of State of the Texans, to think the team not only found its replacement for Brisiel, but a possible future Pro Bowl player as well:
Offensive guard Brandon Brooks is turning into one of the top guards in the NFL. At 6-5 and 335 lbs., Brooks is everything you want in an offensive lineman and he has learned what it takes to be good at this level to be good. Only 24 years old, Brooks can move defensive lineman when he needs to and has improved on his pass protection from year one to entering his 3rd season.
He is a quiet force for the Texans offenses and he will be one of the staples of the offensive line.
The Texans think that Brooks can hold down the right guard spot for the next several years or more, but they still had holes at left guard, right tackle and fullback and needed to add a blocking tight end during the draft to replace the players they had lost.
The team addressed those needs with the selections of UCLA guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, Auburn fullback Jay Prosch and Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Right tackle is still a question mark after David Quessenberry was diagnosed with lymphoma, according to the team's official site (h/t Patrick D. Star of State of the Texans). Hopefully he beats it soon, but until then, the Texans will have to look somewhere else.
The good news is that if the Texans are forced to play Derek Newton again, he's come into camp in better shape, recovered from the injuries that slowed him down last year, and I always thought he was a better run-blocker than pass protector. I'm not thrilled about him starting, but he should do well enough in the run game.
Besides right tackle, the Texans have potentially replaced all the missing pieces from their great running attack several years ago.
Rob Rang of CBS Sports liked Su'a-Filo's ability as a run-blocker in his pre-draft evaluation of the UCLA prospect:
Strong upper body with a well-proportioned frame. Nimble enough to get to the second level and looks natural pulling. Smooth body control and flexible hips to seal. Natural bend, balance and base with a strong anchor to generate power in the run game, can squat an elephant. Good anticipation and engages well at the point of attack. Smart, savvy blocker with natural blocking instincts.
Fullback Jay Prosch was a critical piece of the Auburn running game last season that averaged 328 rushing yards per game. Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com raved about him as a run-blocker before the draft:
Outstanding peripheral blocking vision -- scans wide and locates. Generates power through his lower body and drives defenders out of the hole. Very good hip roll and explosion. Runs his feet on contact. Intense, determined competitor. Good finisher. Is fairly light on his feet for such a big, strong player. Can create a surge in short-yardage situations and power through the line.
Scouts were also high on Fiedorowicz as a run-blocker. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports called him a throwback player because of that skill:
A throwback tight end capable of dominating opponents as a blocker and holding his own as a receiver. He played a key functional role in a run-first offense with the feet to blend in at the end of the offensive line and the hands and reach to be his quarterback's best friend.
Outside of the added blockers, the Texans also drafted a rookie running back who has been turning heads so far and could fill the void left by the departure of Ben Tate.
According to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, Alfred Blue from LSU has impressed O'Brien so far during OTAs and rookie minicamp:
He’s doing pretty well. He’s a guy that came in here as a talented young player that has shown us early on — very early now, OK? So we’re not sending him off to the Pro Bowl just yet. But he’s able to learn and he’s got some instincts and he so far he seems like a good team guy. I’ve enjoyed being around him.
Patrick Starr of State of the Texans has also been impressed by Blue:
New Texans rookie running back Alfred Blue is taller and leaner than we expected. He has better hands out of the backfield than most and catches like a wide receiver. He has a nice one cut and get up field that most are accustomed to here in Houston. Blue is an all around running back which makes him a viable asset moving forward.
Foster appears to be healthy, and all the pieces are in place for the Texans to once again have a dominant running game. Considering the state of the quarterback position on the team, I expect Houston to lean heavily on the running game.
For the first time in several years, the Texans' running game looks to be ready to handle the load.