Texans RBs To Be Extension Of Passing Game In 2020

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HOUSTON (SportsRadio 610) -- The biggest difference in the Texans running game this year is the trade for David Johnson and the loss of Carlos Hyde in free agency.

Hyde, Houston's leading rusher last season, signed with the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason. 

Johnson was traded from the Arizona Cardinals for DeAndre Hopkins, after falling to third on Arizona's depth chart. 

Going into his sixth season, Johnson has talked about having a chip on his shoulder, after going from an All-Pro season in 2016 to an afterthought in Arizona. 

The Texans think highly of Johnson -- his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and size to run between the tackles as he did four years ago. 

Johnson is the NFL's fourth-highest paid running back in terms of average salary this season, so it's reasonable to expect his production to reflect as much. 

It's not lost on Johnson that it's widely believed that Houston did not get enough back for trading Hopkins. With Johnson being the centerpiece of the deal (Texans drafted DT Ross Blacklock with the 40th overall pick from the Hopkins trade), there is some pressure on him to perform at a high level. 

Johnson joins David Johnson as a backfield pairing that can create mismatches in the passing game. 

How effectively will they run between tackles? 

That remains to be seen. It was just two years ago that David Johnson rushed for 940 yards, albeit at only 3.6 yards per attempt, which was just outside the top 40 in the league that year. 

Duke Johnson rushed for a career-high 410 yards and 4.9 per carry in 2019. He had the same amount of receiving yards with 44 catches on 62 targets last season. 

Texans offensive coordinator and first-year playcaller Tim Kelly, head coach-general manager Bill O'Brien and running backs coach Danny Barrett all seem excited to work with the running backs. 

They continue to stress how much both Duke and David will benefit them as pass catchers. 

Deshaun Watson said himself over the weekend that with those two in the backfield, there's no telling who gets the ball. 

Three-down backs is what the coaches call them. 

Last season, it was usually Duke Johnson and not Hyde in third down passing situations, whereas now the skill sets are similar and the players are interchangeable in that situation.

Kelly said during a conference call Wednesday he's confident in both of them running and catching the ball effectively.

"I think one thing, philosophically, is we're always going to try to do what's best for the offense in terms of the different running schemes in trying to put the defense in conflict," Kelly said. "So, anyway we can try to do that, we're going to continue to do that. Obviously, David is a very talented football player. He's not just a great runner, he's obviously talented in the passing game, as is Duke. 

"So, we're in a very unique situation here to have two guys that we trust to not only be effective running the ball, but dangerous in the passing game also. And we're going to do what we can to take advantage of the matchups they're going to present."

The stress it puts on opposing defenses with a two-back set allows the Texans to be more versatile, the running backs coach Barrett said. 

With defenses seeing different types of athletes and having to adjust, it gives a clearer picture to the offense on what kind of coverages they're reading.

"We're looking at guys that can run and catch the football being on the football at the same time," said Barrett, a former quarterback himself. "So I'm excited about this. ... 

"Now, you have two guys that can both play on third down for us, and we don't really have to change what we're doing. We shouldn't miss a beat and both guys are very adept at winning one-on-one routes out of the backfield."

The Texans also return Buddy Howell and Karan Higdon, who will battle for the third running back spot. Who wins the battle will depend largely on how much they can continue on special teams.

Howell was one of the Texans' better special teams players last season. Higdon was on the Texans' practice squad a year ago, but Barrett said he's come back stronger and faster.