HOUSTON, TEXAS – AUGUST 25: Dameon Pierce #31 celebrates with A.J. Cann #60 of the Houston Texans after scoring a touchdown during a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers at NRG Stadium on August 25, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
The Texans’ head-scratching fascination with running back Rex Burkhead has got to stop. And it has to stop Sunday when they play at Denver.
One game into Lovie Smith’s first season as coach, the offense is experiencing déjà vu in the form of a pathetic running game that generated only 77 yards and 2.8 a carry in the 20-20 tie with Indianapolis – even more feeble than last season when the Texans averaged an NFL-worst 83.6 and 3.4.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton calls the plays and determines what offensive players are on the field. Against the Colts, Hamilton used Burkhead on 50 snaps and rookie Dameon Pierce on 20.
That’s preposterous, and it shouldn’t happen again. Burkhead, 32 and playing in his 10th season, is as good as he’s going to get. Pierce, a fourth-round pick who impressed in training camp and preseason, is going to get better but not when he’s languishing on the bench.
Smith indicated this week fans will see more of Pierce, beginning Sunday against the Broncos.
“I understand how many plays Dameon played,” Smith said. “The plan was for him to get more. You get into the game, and situations make you go (in) a little different direction.”
And that direction was south.
Burkhead, a hard worker who gives everything he’s got as a runner, receiver and blocker, ran 14 times for 40 yards against the Colts, a 2.9-yard average per carry. He also caught five passes for 30 yards, a 6-yard average.
Pierce carried 11 times for 33 yards, a 3-yard average. On one play, he slipped and lost 3 yards. Like Burkhead, his longest run was 8 yards. He caught one pass for 6 yards.
At this late stage of his career, Burkhead shouldn’t get the ball more than Pierce. Burkhead’s 149-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Texans’ upset over the Chargers late last season was the high point of his career, but it’s not fair to him to expect anything close to that again.
As a rookie, Pierce is going to get better. And the only way he gets better is to get the ball as a runner and as an occasional receiver. He needs to get the ball to help improve the running game, which would allow the offense to do a better job of staying on the field and keeping the defense fresh.
Smith sounds like that problem against the Colts with Burkhead getting more playing time and more touches is going to be rectified against the Broncos.
“You can’t defend the amount of reps (Pierce) got in some of those situations,” he said. “I wish he had gotten more, and we’re going to work to get him more of those opportunities.”
Because of Pierce’s inauspicious debut, there are critics who are convinced he was overrated in preseason, and the problem with the running game is going to persist. They could be right, of course, but here’s something intriguing to consider before you write off Pierce after one game.
Taking into account the NFL’s 1,000-yard rushers last season and including two who didn’t reach that milestone but remain among the best in the league, consider some of these numbers.
Jonathan Taylor (Colts), the NFL’s leading rusher last season who gouged the Texans for 161 yards on Sunday, carried nine times for 22 yards in the first game of his career in 2020.
Nick Chubb (Browns), the league’s second-leading rusher in 2021, ran three times for 21 yards in his debut.
Joe Mixon (Bengals), the third-leading rusher, carried eight times for 9 yards.
Derrick Henry (Titans) had five carries for 3 yards in his first game, and Alvin Kamara (Saints) had seven rushes for 18 yards.
Of the seven backs who reached quadruple digits last season, the only one with an impressive debut was Dalvin Cook (Vikings), who carried 22 carries for 127 yards.
So Pierce’s meager output against the Colts doesn’t mean he’ll succeed or fail based on that one game. He does need more opportunities to show what he can do.
A more telling sign about whether the running game will be productive or unproductive for a third consecutive year is the performance of the offensive line that was mostly terrible at run blocking against the Colts.
The linemen — as well as the tight ends and receivers — have to show substantial improvement as run blockers against the Broncos or the Texans will suffer their first defeat for sure. And it might not be close.
In their 17-16 loss at Seattle on Monday, the Broncos surrendered 76 yards rushing. That doesn’t bode well for the Texans.
The linemen had penalties at the worst times and were beaten physically too often. They had mental errors and miscommunication.
A reason for that miscommunication could be line’s lack of stability. Coach George Warhop is in his first season with the Texans. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil and center Justin Britt didn’t play in preseason. Rookie left guard Kenyon Green played in one preseason game. And it showed.
By the way, it’s time for Green to join Pierce as another rookie who should be elevated into the starting lineup. Run blocking is his specialty.
If the linemen play better, the running game will improve. And it better be Pierce making the improvement rather than Burkhead. Let Pierce do the heavy-duty work. When he needs a breather, Burkhead can replace him. Burkhead also can be utilized on some third down plays.
In his second game as the Texans’ play-caller, it’s up to Hamilton to provide Pierce with an opportunity to make Denver the destination for his coming-out party.
(John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He also can be read on SportsRadio610.com)