Like a lot of segments of this year's team, it's been tough to get a read on the Packers' run defense so far.
At its best, the unit clamped down on the Saints trio of Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram to the tune of just 2.4 yards per rush (19 carries, 45 yards) in Week 4. Chicago's Michael Bush and Matt Forte, along with Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, didn't get loose either in Weeks 2 and 3, averaging a collective 4.0 (46-183) with nothing longer than nine yards.
But San Francisco's tandem of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter powered their way to 6.1 yards per carry (25-153) in the season opener, and last week Indy's Donald Brown averaged 4.9, with seven of his 17 carries going for eight or more yards.
Given ups and downs like that, there's no telling how the Packers will fare against Houston's Arian Foster on Sunday night. The key could be whether or not nose tackle B.J. Raji, who is trying to recover quickly from a sprained ankle, is able to play. The defense's top run-stopper hasn't practiced thus far this week and could end up being a game-time decision.
"That would be real tough without B.J.," fellow defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. "I don't know if he's going to be ready, but hopefully he can play. If not, we're going to have to do it, but it will definitely be a lot easier with him in there."
The repeated gashes by the Colts' Brown, who at one point in the third quarter had three consecutive carries for nine, 11 and 10 yards, are exactly what the Packers need to prevent this week against Foster, the league's second-leading rusher, who has topped 100 yards three times in five games this season.
Those three straight Brown runs – and five of his seven carries of eight-plus yards overall – came after Raji left the game in the second quarter, when he reinjured the same ankle he hurt in the preseason finale. He recovered from that in time to play in the opener against the 49ers, but it's probably fair to say he wasn't at full strength against Gore and Hunter.
Mike McCarthy said Foster is the Packers' "key target" going into Sunday night's game, and it's easy to see why. He's a true workhorse, with a league-leading 132 carries this season, 19 more than any other back in the league. Foster's 532 yards are barely behind the 551 of Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, and his five rushing TDs are an NFL best.
McCarthy said the Texans run the outside zone scheme – a stretch play on which the back takes the ball behind a wall of blockers moving laterally and then either tries to jet around the corner or pick a cutback lane as soon as one appears – better than anyone in the NFL.
"I think the term patience is overused for running backs, but he's the epitome of a patient back," Raji said of Foster. "You look at his physical ability – his vision is awesome, his speed is not quite where some other backs are in this league – but I think what separates him is his patience and his ability to look for the weak link up front, cut it back on a dime and get downhill."
Foster's patience in turn requires patience on the part of the defenders to stay disciplined and stay in their run lanes. It's almost like a game of chicken as the play stretches to the outside, to see which side is going to commit and make the first move.
"He's so patient, sometimes it's like he's not running as hard, and then he finds a spot and he waits for somebody to make a mistake, and he'll make you pay for making that mistake," Pickett said.
"That's the hard part about playing this style of offense. You can stop the run, stop it (again), and then one person gets out of their gap, and he can cut back and gash you for 30 yards. You hate that."
More than anything, the Packers would hate to see their record fall to 2-4. Finding a way to contain Foster may be the key to avoiding that. Additional coverage - Oct. 11