While the Houston Texans enter their season opener Sunday against the Washington Redskins with a new quarterback, head coach and rookie defensive playmaker, the team also is returning several key components of its offense.
With seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson set to return for his 12th season in Houston, the Texans are also hoping that two-time first-team All-Pro running back Arian Foster can return to form after missing the second half of the 2013 season due to a back injury that required surgery.
A Tennessee product, Foster has thrived in the Texans' zone-running scheme, averaging 4.5 yards per carry in his career, including rushing for at least 1,200 yards from 2010 to 2012.
"We expect to get his best," veteran Redskins defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. "He's probably the best zone runner in the game. He has the production to show for it."
Foster was likely well on his way to another 1,000-yard season in 2013 before suffering his back injury, running for 542 yards through the first eight weeks of the season.
Although a hamstring injury kept Foster off the field this preseason, the Redskins have plenty of tape to watch on the running back.
Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said the defensive front must "make the ball bounce" and prevent Foster from being able to make his cut and then run up field.
"He's had a lot of time to recover, so I expect he'll be at full strength," said Kerrigan, a Pro Bowler in 2012 who tied his career high with 8.5 sacks last season. "He's a one-cut runner who's very explosive once he makes that cut."
Second-year safety Bacarri Rambo said gang tackling will also be another emphasis when going up against Foster. Getting all 11 hats to the football, Rambo said, will be the Redskins' best bet to keep Foster contained.
"We just have to gang tackle," Rambo said of Foster, who broke 28 tackles in 2012 — seventh-best in the NFL among running backs. "He can make one guy miss, and he's got enough speed he can take it to the house. We just have to gang tackle and have everybody around the ball."
Veteran safety Ryan Clark said Foster has the makeup and mentality of the NFL's greatest running backs who are notorious for never giving up on a run, keeping their legs churning for more yards just when the defense thought they had secured a stop.
"If the play's blocked up for three yards, you know he'll get those three yards," Clark said. "The big thing is tackling, stopping him. If he does have a play blocked up for three yards, limit him to those three yards, because he can take it to the house. He's always trying to make the extra yards."
The Redskins had success containing Foster in their last matchup against the Texans in 2010 at FedExField. Foster — who ended up being the NFL's rushing champion that year with a career-best 1,616 yards — was held to just 69 yards on 19 carries that day.
Golston — who had three tackles for the Redskins that day against the Texans — said keeping Foster contained will be a huge emphasis Sunday in their season opener.
"We know what Arian Foster can do," Golston said. "He has the breakaway speed that he can take one that most guys would probably run for five, 10 yards, and he'll take it 80 on you. It's up to us to keep him corralled and gang tackle him."