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Friday, November 21, 2008
Scouts Inc.: The secret to Slaton's success

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Doug Kretz

Rookie running back Steve Slaton is sparking what had been an anemic Houston Texans ground game. The Texans appear to have the franchise's first 1,000-yard rusher since Domanick Davis in 2004. Slaton already has 701 rushing yards through 10 games and needs to average just 50 yards the rest of the season in order to reach the 1,000-yard plateau. Even more impressive than his totals has been Slaton's rushing average (5.1), tied for fourth in the NFL.

 
 Paul Jasienski/Getty Images
 Rookie Steve Slaton is on pace to become Houston's first running back to gain 1,000 yards since 2004.

In coach Gary Kubiak's running game, a stretch zone scheme that resembles Denver's system, the ball carrier takes the handoff deep in the pocket and is expected to stick his foot in the ground, make a single cut and explode upfield into the hole. Kubiak has tried out a rather large contingent of backs over the last four years in hopes of finding that explosive runner who hits the hole at full speed and gets downhill immediately. It seems he has hit the jackpot in Slaton.

The first thing that stands out about Slaton is his explosive burst through the hole and to the second level. Because he isn't a high-stepper, his feet stay close to the ground and he's able to make quick reaction cuts to avoid opponents who suddenly appear in his path. Slaton also shows excellent vision and run instincts. He keeps his head up and his eyes downfield, and he's a quick decision-maker. When he sees a hole develop, he commits to the run lane and takes what his blockers provide.

Running plays in the scheme are designed to gain 3-4 yards, but there's always a chance to turn them into something bigger if a defender misses the tackle or loses his gap integrity. Like all backs, Slaton turns in his share of two- and three-yard runs. But he also has had his share of explosive plays because he hits the hole at full speed. The back who makes the quick decision and hits the hole with everything he's got has a chance to turn a standard run into a big gainer because, simply put, defenders sometimes make mistakes.

Slaton finishes runs well, despite his diminutive size (5-foot-9, 200 pounds). He's no pile-driver, but he has a last-second burst of speed and drops his pads to consistently pick up an extra yard or two. And Slaton closes out games as well as he finishes individual runs. His robust rushing average early in games (6.4 in the first quarter) dips in the middle of games, but he picks it up in the fourth (5.5). When Kubiak worried that the rookie might be wearing down in a Week 10 game against Baltimore, he rested Slaton after he took just four carries. (Remember, Slaton had just finished what normally would be considered a full college season.) A week later, he bounced back with a career-high 156 yards against Indianapolis. Kubiak's handling of Slaton -- featuring him without overworking him -- has been superb.

Slaton may not be the NFL's next great running back, but he certainly appears to fit the mold of productive runners Kubiak previously worked with as the Broncos' offensive coordinator. The rookie's ability to put a charge into Houston's ground game bodes well for a franchise on the verge of becoming a playoff contender.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.