Just like he outdid Tennessee's Chris Johnson twice this season, Steve Slaton one-upped the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte in a matchup of two of the league's top rookie running backs. Slaton ran for 92 yards to Forte's 50 and helped seal the Texans' 31-24 victory with a two-yard touchdown run with less than four minutes remaining in the game.
The 10th running back picked in the 2008 NFL Draft, Slaton finished at the top of his class with 1,282 rushing yards this season, earning the NFL rookie rushing title. Forte came in second with 1,238 yards, and Johnson was third with 1,228.
"It's great; overwhelming, really," Slaton said. "I didn't know I was that close to (winning) it, and just to have it on the last game makes it even more special."
In what has become typical Slaton fashion, his productivity went up as the game wound down. When the Texans turned to the running game in the fourth quarter to preserve a 21-17 lead, Slaton gained 73 yards on just 12 carries, including his touchdown and a 47-yard run that was the longest play from scrimmage in the game.
"He gets stronger as the game goes on," rookie left tackle Duane Brown said. "To be able to depend on him when the game's on the line and you know you have to run the clock down, and he can break the big plays open and get a first down, get touchdowns, that really demoralizes the defense and it really boosts our confidence as a team and as an offense."
It wasn't so rosy for Slaton before the fourth quarter. He fumbled on the Texans' second possession, was pulled for backup Ryan Moats and finished the first half with only 19 yards on five carries. He carried three times in the third quarter but didn't gain any yards.
Slaton handled the adversity with a veteran's maturity, saying after the game that he initially wasn't playing well enough for the team to win.
"I was disappointed with Steve early in the game," head coach Gary Kubiak said. "He had way too many mistakes early in the game, and that's not like him. Protections, routes, he just wasn't ready to go. But (Moats) came in and played well and got Steve's attention, and then Steve played huge the last quarter of the football game.
"He's learned a lot. He started 15 football games. For a rookie, that's a lot of football games to start, and he's grown up and should only get better."
A third-round draft pick in April, Slaton was supposed to be a third-down back, one who could help the Texans as a situational runner and receiver. He ended up with 268 carries, averaging 4.8 yards per run, and nine rushing touchdowns.
Slaton led all AFC rookies with 1,659 yards from scrimmage this season.
"I really didn't know what to expect this whole year," Slaton said. "I wanted to come in and contribute, do whatever I could do, whatever coaches needed – special teams, offense, whatever. Just to get the opportunity to play the position I love and start is definitely a blessing."
Slaton accounted for 27 percent of the Texans' franchise record 6,113 total yards from scrimmage this season. His 508 rushing yards in December were the most by a rookie in any month this season, and his 1,282 rushing yards were the fifth-most by a rookie this decade.
"He's done everything," right tackle Eric Winston said. "Name a more complete back. He's carried it on short yardage, he's carried it on the goal line, he's carried it on third and long, he's carried it on screens, dumps, down the field on wheels, on everything. He's done everything, and I think it's a pretty clear case who the best rookie running back is this year."