BACK ATTACK

Houston Texans positional preview: Running Back

Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

Back with another installment, focusing on the position previews for the Houston Texans roster. Up next, it is time to look at Houston's running back situation.

It took a preseason game in Dallas to change the trajectory of the Houston Texans' backfield. Lamar Miller — a Pro Bowl half-back a year prior — tore his ACL two minutes into a preseason game against the Cowboys ending his 2019 season.

With Miller placed on injured reserved, the Texans traded for Carlos Hyde a week before the start of the season. He had a breakout year in 2019, recording over 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career (1,070). While sharing the backfield with Duke Johnson, Hyde helped the Texans generate one of the most explosive dual-threat running back systems in the league.

Houston will now be without either of their starting running backs as they prepare for training camp in July. The departure of both Miller and Hyde has left a gaping hole in the backfield, and it is uncertain which of the Texans' five running backs can fill the empty void.

David Johnson: Starter

In 2016, many considered David Johnson to be the best running back in the league. He fell 121 yards shy from joining the elusive 1,000-1,000 club, as the All-Pro back recorded 1,239 yards on the ground on 293 attempts (4.2 AVG), to go along with 879 yards receiving on 80 catches with 20 total touchdowns. Four years later, an injury-riddled Johnson was the Texans' grand-prize in a deal that sent DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals.

Despite the lopsided trade, a healthy Johnson could be an extraordinary addition to the Texans in hindsight. He still possesses the talent to be a top-tear running back, which gives him the advantage to take the reins as Houston's No. 1 option following Hyde's departure. Although he is still a solid power-back, Johnson is still a proficient pass catcher. He has recorded a total of 208 receptions for 2,219 yards throughout his career — giving Deshaun Watson another reliable target in 2020.

However, the 28-year-old running back has been in decline since his breakout campaign in 2016. Last season, he rushed for 345 yards (3.7 AVG) in 13 games, which led to the Cardinals' decision to move forward with Kenyan Drake as their primary back.

It is unsure what to expect from Johnson in 2020. He could be the Texans' primary back running taking the majority of the workload, or a potential waste of a roster spot costing Houston $11.1 million. Regardless of what's in store, the chances of Johnson returning to his All-Pro form are slim to none.

Duke Johnson: Backup

Much of Duke Johnson's responsibilities in 2020 will depend on the performance of David Johnson. If the former All-Pro running back produces an exceptional season, expect Duke to continue his role as a third-down back who can provide Watson an additional target coming out of the backfield. Nonetheless, should David proceed on a declining slope, Duke would seize the opportunity to be featured as a franchise's primary back.

Duke was a vital piece to the Texans' success in 2019. As an all-round half-back, he ended the year with 410 rush yards (4.9 AVG) and 410 receiving yards (9.3 AVG) with five total touchdowns. He nearly split touches evenly with his backfield-mate Carlos Hyde — resulting in a career-year for Duke.

After a full season playing under Bill O'Brien, the 26-year-old running back should presumably take on more of an offensive load in 2020. And with similar attributes as David, replicating a successful duel-back system will be the best-case scenario for both Duke and the Texans as a whole.

Buddy Howell: Third String

Buddy Howell is entering the 2020 season in a unique situation. Expect to see the 24-year-old running back continue his work on special teams. But the uncertainty surrounding the Texans' backfield may provide an opportunity for Howell to move up the depth chart.

He appeared in 39 snaps since 2018 — with 25 coming during the Texans' season finale against the Titans last season. For his career, he has only recorded 10 yards on five carries. But sharing the same position highlighted by Carlos Hyde and Lamar Miller hindered Howell's chances to showcase his potential coming out of the backfield.

If either of the Johnsons succumb to injury or falls short of expectations, Howell can step in taking advantage of the opportunity at hand. In a small sample size, Howell already proved his worth as a back up running back. While helping the Texans take 30-23 preseason victory over the Lions, Howell notched 84 rushing yards (5.6 AVG) on 15 attempts, to go along with one touchdown in the win. Assuming he stays healthy, Howell will be Houston's insurance policy for 2020.

Karan Higdon: Depth

Karan Higdon Jr. signed with the Texans following the 2019 NFL Draft. He came up short from making Houston's final 53-man roster, but was a member of the team's practice squad last season. In four seasons at the University of Michigan, Higdon rushed for 2,616 yards and posted 27 touchdowns. During his senior season, he tallied a career-best 1,178 rushing yards — third-most in the Big 10 for 2018.

With two fewer preseason games, securing a place on the Texans' roster is still a tall order stacked against Higdon. In four preseason games in 2019, the Michigan prodigy recorded 103 rushing yards on 36 carries and no touchdowns.

Scottie Phillips: Depth

Scottie Phillips is one of nine undrafted rookies who signed with the Texans in April. The 5-foot-8 running back may have the most upside out of his five contemporaries — as many considered Phillips' signing one of the most prominent steals following the draft.

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With the disappointing loss in extra innings late the night before, the Astros returned to RingCentral Coliseum on Saturday afternoon to try and even the series against the A's, who now owned a 3.5 game lead in the AL West over Houston. Here is a quick rundown of the middle game of the series:

Final Score: A's 3, Astros 1.

Record: 6-8, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Frankie Montas (2-1, 1.57 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Framber Valdez (0-2, 2.04 ERA).

Valdez does his job

Framber Valdez ran into stress early on Saturday, facing trouble in the bottom of the first inning. It started with a leadoff solo home run, putting Oakland up 1-0 before they would record an out. He later allowed back-to-back one-out singles to rack up his pitch count in the frame but would limit the damage to the single run.

He was able to re-focus and settle in during the following innings, getting quick, scoreless innings in the next four. In the bottom of the sixth, a leadoff groundball that likely should have been the first out was instead a single that would come back to bite Houston. That runner stole second and advanced to third on a bad throw, then scored on an RBI-groundout, doubling Oakland's lead to 2-0. Valdez would go one more inning, giving Houston precisely what they needed by helping give their exhausted bullpen a break. His final line: 7.0 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K, 1 HR.

Houston's offense unable to get anything going

Unfortunately for Houston, Frankie Montas was even more efficient on the other side. Houston was only able to notch two hits against him over seven innings while Montas only had to throw 86 pitches over that span. Oakland would go to their bullpen in the top of the eighth, with the Astros getting just a single in the inning.

Nivaldo Rodriguez would take over for Valdez in the bottom of the eighth and allowed a solo home run to make it 3-0 before completing the inning. Houston would get a leadoff double by Kyle Tucker to start the top of the ninth, and he would come around to score on an RBI-single by Alex Bregman. That's as close as Houston would get, though, as Oakland would finish off the win to secure the series and extend Houston's losing streak to four games.

Up Next: The final game of this series and Houston's nine-game road trip will be on Sunday at 3:10 PM Central. Jesus Luzardo (0-0, 2.31 ERA) will make a start for the A's while Cristian Javier (1-0, 1.42 ERA) will look to continue his success in 2020 for the Astros.

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