Mandatory Credit: Photo by Mark Black/UPI/Shutterstock (13419638y) Houston Texans running back Dameon Pierce (31) takes the hand off from quarterback Davis Mills (10) against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday, September 25, 2022. The Bears won 23-20. NFL Texans Bears, Chicago, Illinois, United States – 25 Sep 2022
The Texans are 6 ½-point underdogs at Jacksonville, and if they’re going to pull an upset and earn their first victory over a team they’ve defeated eight consecutive games, rookie running back Dameon Pierce will have to play a substantial role.
Six running backs were drafted before Pierce, but four games into the season, he’s the most productive rookie in the NFL with 313 yards rushing. Selected in the fourth round and 107th overall, Pierce is on a pace for 255 carries for 1,331 yards, a 5.2-yard average and nine touchdowns.
The Texans’ rookie record is owned by Steve Slaton, who ran for 1,282 yards in 2008.
Pierce’s 75-yard touchdown run in Sunday’s 34-24 loss to the Chargers is the longest by a running back this season. Only Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson (79 yards) has a longer rushing touchdown.
The last Houston rookie to have a longer run than Pierce was Eddie George in 1996, the Oilers’ last season before moving to Tennessee. George had a 76-yard run. Before that, it was Larry Moriarty with an 80-yard run in 1983.
Pierce is 10th in the NFL in yards rushing, sixth with a 5.2 average per carry, eighth with 15 first downs, tied for fifth with nine broken tackles and tied for seven with 111 yards after contact.
“There’s a reason we’re starting a rookie running back,” coach Lovie Smith said this week. “He can run between the tackles. He can make you miss in open field. Not many running backs go 75 yards. In the NFL, that’s hard to do.”
Pierce’s 75-yard touchdown run came in the second quarter when the Texans were behind 21-0. They got within 27-24 with 8:26 left in the game but lost when the Chargers went 84 yards in 12 plays to score a touchdown that secured the victory.
Pierce’s touchdown was like filling the offense with jet fuel.
“It takes one play to be able to get the team going, and that run — to be able to make a guy miss and be able to strike down the sideline — got the whole team amped up,” receiver Brandin Cooks said. “From there on, it gave us some juice. I think that was a defining play to keep us going and moving the ball in the right direction.”
Ultimately, the Texans blew a chance to win in the fourth quarter for a fourth consecutive week. Now they play Jacksonville, a team they haven’t lost to since 2017. The Jaguars are 2-2 in Doug Pederson’s first season as their coach.
Pierce will be going against a Jacksonville defense that’s eighth against the run, allowing 93.8 yards a game. The Jaguars are fourth in opponents’ average per carry of 3.6 yards. Obviously, a big part of the Jaguars’ defensive game plan will revolve around stopping Pierce.
His yardage has improved with each game: 33 against the Colts, 69 (Broncos), 80 (Bears) to 131 (Chargers).
The mark of an efficient running team is being able to consistently produce when the defense is focused on stopping the run. The Texans aren’t a consistent running team yet, but they’ve improved on the ground in the last two games with Pierce carrying 34 times for 211 yards (6.2 average) and two touchdowns.
How the Texans run the ball against the Jaguars depends heavily on the offensive line. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is off to an outstanding start. From Tunsil to the other starters – left guard Kenyon Green, center Scott Quessenberry, right guard A.J. Cann and right tackle Tytus Howard – the linemen must have their best game to run effectively, improve the protection of quarterback Davis Mills and escape Jacksonville with their first victory.
The more effective Pierce is, the more it should help Mills and the passing game.
“Developing the run game and him doing his job and running behind those offensive linemen is huge, especially on first and second down, even third-and-short,” Mills said. “If we can get to a lot of third-and-manageable and we can increase our conversion rate on third down and keep the drives alive, I think the run game is very effective.
“If we can keep running the ball better, it opens everything else up on offense.”
It’s up to offensive starter Pep Hamilton to make sure to get the ball to Pierce enough. First-year line coach George Warhop came from Jacksonville, so he knows the Jaguars well. Warhop’s knowledge of their defense should benefit the offensive game plan.
Hamilton needs to find ways to utilize Pierce as a receiver that’s better than what the Texans have been doing with him in that role. He has 10 catches for 43 yards, a 4.3 average per catch. Hamilton should have designed plays for Pierce to get the ball rather than relying on him as checkdown when Mills can’t locate receivers down the field.
At the University of Florida, Pierce had 45 catches for 422 yards (9.2 average) and five touchdowns. He improved in each of the last two seasons, including 19 for 216 (11.4) and three touchdowns as a senior.
“He’s showing all the things he can do,” Smith said. “He’s a guy we need to continue to feature.”
Especially Sunday against the Jaguars if the Texans want to increase that AFC South winning streak to nine games.
(John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).