Late in the fourth quarter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week Nine game at New Orleans, the Saints lined up for a third-and-one play at the visitors' 17-yard line. The Buccaneers' chances for victory weren't good no matter what happened on the play – a Saints field goal would make it a two-score game with just over a minute to play – but they would drain to virtually zero percent if the Saints converted the third down.
New Orleans, which would finish the day with 185 rushing yards, put the biggest of their three running backs in the game and slammed him over left tackle. Ivory hit the hole with a full head of steam.
Waiting in that gap, however, was Buccaneers rookie linebacker Mason Foster. Ivory and Foster collided and, despite his momentum, the Saints back didn't gain another inch. On a day in which more went wrong than right for Tampa Bay's defense, this was one of the more encouraging moments. The Saints did kick that clinching field goal on the next snap, but Foster's play was a good sign for the future.
Hopefully, if the Bucs want to snap their two-game losing streak, it's a good sign for the very near future. Tampa Bay's defense is going to need more rugged plays like that in the holes along the line of scrimmage in order to slow down the Houston Texans' prolific running back tandem of Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
"You've got to get downhill," said Foster, borrowing a term usually applied to running backs to describe what the Buc defenders need to do in the gaps. "You've got to meet them at the line of scrimmage. You can't let them get up on you because it's tough to stop a grown man, 220-something pounds, running at full speed. You've got to get downhill and fight force with force."
The Texans will bring a lot of ground-game force with them to Raymond James Stadium. Foster, last year's leading rusher in the NFL, ranks eighth in the league this season with 656 yards. Tate is just behind, tied for ninth with 623 yards. Houston is the only team in the NFL with two running backs in the top 30, let alone the top 10, in rushing yards (Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick does give the Eagles two of the top 20 rushers). Foster is averaging 4.3 yards per carry and has scored five rushing touchdowns. When Tate spells the starter, he picks up 5.0 yards per tote. Foster also happens to be second on the team with 27 receptions.
"They're just hard-nosed runners," said defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. "The offensive line does a great job of getting bodies in position to make holes for those guys. They're seeing those holes and hitting them. They're not doing a whole bunch of east-west running. They're hitting it downhill fast."
Echoed Foster, in very similar terms: "They run north and south. They get downhill quick. Great running backs, great vision, so it's going to be another challenge, like every week has been this year, facing another combo of running backs."
Those terms – "downhill" and "north-south" – peppered every conversation Buc defenders had about the Texans' duo in the locker room this week. Defensive end Michael Bennett isn't surprised to see Foster and Tate running so hard and so purposefully, because he worked out with them in Houston during the offseason and witnessed how determined they were to drive the Texans' offense this year.
Tate hurt his ankle during the preseason in 2010 and spent his entire rookie campaign on injured reserve, which actually helped Foster put up such gigantic numbers last year (2,220 combined yards and 18 touchdowns). Foster struggled with his own injuries this preseason and into the first few weeks of the regular season, and that in turn opened the door for Tate. Now they're working together and it's causing problems for opposing teams. The 6-3 Texans rank second in rushing in the NFL and, thus, sixth in points scored.
The Buccaneers' defense has struggled against the run in recent weeks, and the numbers that Tate has put up in relief of Foster tells Tampa Bay defenders they won't be able to let up for a single snap on Sunday.
"That does get your attention because usually you play a game and when the premier running back goes out you expect a dropoff," said Bennett. "But there's no dropoff in this game. Both of them can catch really good, both of them can do anything. At any point in time they can make a big play."
There is no secret formula for the Bucs' defense to slow down Foster and Tate, only a return to the disciplined and hard-nosed football that they have displayed on their better days against the run.
"They're averaging almost five yards a carry, both of them, so it's going to be a big part of it as a defensive line and as a defensive unit to stop the run," said Bowers. "They have a very well-coached offensive line. We've just got to do our jobs by staying in our gaps and playing Buccaneer football. "This is the NFL. Everybody's good, everybody has power, everybody has speed. But guys like that come once in awhile. You've just got to do your best to contain them and put them in a bad position."
Foster and Tate might be the most difficult two-headed test for a run defense in the NFL this season. For the Buccaneers, it's an immediate challenge as they look to push their record back over .500, as well as a good indication of how the second half of the season may go for the team's rush defense.
"You look at the teams that we're playing, we're playing the best running teams every week these next couple weeks," said Bennett. "So we really need to step it up as a defense and stop these running backs, because if not they're just going to have career days every week. We've got to start tackling better and do everything we can to be a better defense."