OWINGS MILLS — Arian Foster earned a rare nod of distinction after the Houston Texans pushed the Baltimore Ravens to the brink last season.
Through a series of collisions with the Ravens’ proud defense, the NFL rushing champion gained the respect of All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
Foster is the last running back to hit the century mark against the Ravens, gaining 100 yards on 20 carries last season during an overtime loss to Baltimore at Reliant Stadium.
Afterward, Lewis sought out Foster to salute him for his effort.
"I went up to him and told him I really liked his game," Lewis said. "We became kind of good friends off the field, but on the field that kind of changes. He is a good, humble guy, and you can see why his talent is what it is.
"He nurtures it. He really works hard. You have to hit him. Seriously, he is one of the most complete backs that you can see."
That meeting last December created something of a mutual admiration society between Lewis and Foster, who comes to Baltimore on Sunday as the Ravens (3-1) square off with the Texans (3-2) at M&T Bank Stadium.
Foster and Lewis hung out at the Pro Bowl after last season and in Los Angeles to shoot commercials.
"He is just a genuine guy," Foster said. "He has become kind of my mentor. I look at him like a big brother. He shows a lot of love, a lot of respect for how I play the game, and it’s mutual."
Admiration for Foster in the Ravens’ locker room isn’t confined to Lewis.
Gritty outside linebacker Jarret Johnson characterized Foster’s 42-yard touchdown run against the Pittsburgh Steelers as the best run he’s ever witnessed.
Foster got past Steelers All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu, one of the best open-field tacklers in the game, for the score.
"You’re not going to bring him down with an arm tackle," Johnson said. "You’ve got to get a body on him. It’s a great scheme. He’s perfect for it. It’s going to be a big challenge for us."
The 6-foot-1, 227-pound former undrafted free agent from Tennessee led the NFL with 1,616 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
And Foster displayed his versatility by also hauling in 66 catches for 604 yards and two touchdowns.
"He can break a run, man, from anywhere," free safety Ed Reed said. "He is a perfect back for that offense. He has his own running schemes, the cutbacks and bouncing it. He’s a playmaker."
Foster is an artist in the zone-stretch play, beating defenders around the perimeter with his combination of size, speed, body lean and moves.
"He’s a stretch-and-cut runner, great vision," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Everywhere is the point of attack in that scheme."
Foster almost seems to glide across the field with his smooth running style.
As agile as Foster is, he can also lower the boom on defenders.
"He’s a big, fast, physical, hard-nosed, downhill runner," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "They run the stretch scheme to a T. He gets on a track, he sees an opening, he puts one foot in the ground, and he gets north and south.
"He’s a big guy. He’s a load. You’ve got to gang-tackle him. You’ve got to do a great job up front of building a flat wall, playing technique, staying on your feet and not getting cut. The big runs you see, they get guys running sideline to sideline because they get the backside cut off and you get big runs that way."
The Texans also operate an effective play-action scheme with quarterback Matt Schaub at the controls, using the run to set up the pass in classic form.
Because defenses can’t afford to ignore Foster, it opens up the passing game.
"Their offense is built on the run to get you running, get you moving, get you to make a mistake," Johnson said. "All of a sudden, you’re so fixed on the run, they run a boot and they’ve got some guys who can get downfield.. Their big thing is to pound the run and then get big chunk plays in the passing game."
How do you defend Foster?
"It takes more discipline in your technique," Johnson said. "They get guys running so fast. And when you run, you obviously have to turn, and when you turn shoulders if you see a back of a defender and you can’t see their numbers, it’s not good defense.
"So, you have to work on staying square, moving fast. When they cut, you’ve got to stay on your feet. When you get cut, when you get a guy on the ground, that’s where the ball’s coming every time."
Despite a hamstring injury that hampered him at the start of the year, Foster has rushed for 256 yards.
He has also caught 10 passes for 134 yards.
"He’s a really complete back," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "He catches out of the backfield. He can make a lot of plays. He sees holes. He’s fast.
"As a front, we have to hit him and get him down as fast as we can. We can’t arm tackle him or just slow him down. He has the speed and quickness to get going again."
With star wide receiver Andre Johnson sidelined with a torn hamstring, Foster becomes the true focal point of the Texans’ offense.
In a loss to the Oakland Raiders, he caught five passes for 116 yards while rushing for 68 yards on 22 carries.
He gained 155 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers on 30 carries.
The Ravens rank second in the NFL against the run, surrendering only 72.5 yards on the ground per contest.
"It’s going to be a big challenge for us this week," Lewis said. "We understand that with Andre being out, and them going through them things offensively, we know they are going to try to run the ball on us. I think we are up for the challenge."