Mandatory Credit: Photo by Mark Black/UPI/Shutterstock (13419638g) Chicago Bears Roquan Smith (58) intercepts the ball intended for Houston Texans back Rex Burkhead (28) to put the Bears in field goal range for the 23-20 win over the Houston Texans at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday, September 25, 2022. NFL Texans Bears, Chicago, Illinois, United States – 25 Sep 2022
The Texans had a third consecutive opportunity to win a game in the fourth quarter and blew it – a problem that’s become a nasty habit in Lovie Smith’s first season as coach.
Quarterback Davis Mills had a chance to put his stamp on the offense Sunday when the Texans started their last drive with 1:42 remaining at Soldier Field, where they were in position to defeat the Bears and earn their first victory.
With the score tied 20-20, the Texans needed for Mills to step up and show the promise of late last season wasn’t a mirage, but once again, he failed to produce.
The Texans, who’ve been outscored 30-0 in the fourth quarter or three games, had first down at their 17. Mills completed 5- and 4-yard passes to Brandin Cooks and Chris Moore, setting up third-and-1 at the 26. Even though Dameon Pierce had rushed for 80 yards and scored his first touchdown, he was on the bench after fumbling a second time even though the Texans didn’t lose either of them.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton had Rex Burkhead replacing Pierce on the game’s most important series. Needing 1 yard to keep the drive going, Mills dropped back and threw to Burkhead for what would have been another short pass but good for a first down.
Defensive tackle Angelo Blackson, a former Texan, tipped the pass, and it went straight to linebacker Roquan Smith when he stepped in front of Burkhead and returned the interception 18 yards to Texans’ 12. Carlos Santos kicked a 30-yard field goal with no time remaining to give the Bears their second victory.
“Got through my progression, made the correct read, had Rex open, and the ball got tipped at the line,” Mills said afterward. “Nothing I could really do about it. Good play by the defense.”
Mills’ performance through the first three games bears no resemblance to the Mills of the last month of his rookie season when he showed so much grit playing for a wretched team.
Against the Bears, Mills completed 20-of-32 (62.5 percent) for 245 yards and a touchdown. He threw two interceptions, and his rating was 70.4. He had solid protection, for the most part, so the linemen couldn’t be blamed for his failures.
Mills threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Akins and could have thrown another one. Safety Jalen Pitre intercepted Justin Fields to set up the offense at the Chicago 41. Mills helped the Texans reach second-and-7 at the Bears’ 7. He threw to Cooks, who caught only two passes for 22 yards, in the back of the end zone, but the pass was broken up by cornerback Kindle Vildor and intercepted by safety Eddie Jackson.
“Brandin was the primary (target),” Mills said. “It was tight coverage. He (Vildor) made a good play on it and tipped the ball up, and (Jackson) ended up finding a way to get back in the play and pick it off.
“Just unfortunate down in the red zone. Turned the ball over with an opportunity (to) score a touchdown. We’ve got to take advantage of all those opportunities. It’s tough.”
The Texans have one unit playing well, and that’s special teams. The offense is struggling, and the rotten run defense continues to be a humongous problem for a third consecutive season. The Bears rushed for 281 yards, their most since 1984.
The Texans reached Chicago territory six times and scored only 20 points. In the fourth quarter, Pitre’s second interception gave the offense the ball at the Bears’ 38. They went backward to the 48 and punted. That’s par for the fourth-quarter course for the offense.
“I’ll take responsibility for it,” Mills said. “Obviously, turning the ball over late in the game when we needed it, that’s the quarterback’s job to protect the football and start building drives and moving us down the field to put ourselves in a position to win.
“I thought overall we played well today. It’s just a tough result.”
If the Texans played “well,” imagine what the score would have been if they had played poorly.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Mills said. “We all know it. We’ve been close in all these games, and we’re confident in our abilities. We’ve got to find a way late in games to switch the result. I think once we start doing that and start building momentum, there’ll be a big change around here.
“I don’t think at this point we’re a team (that) can come back from a lot of mistakes if we make them. We’ve got to execute at a high level from the start — start fast and finish.”
Mills’ touchdown pass to Akins and Pierce’s 1-yard scoring run provided the Texans with a 14-10 lead after they fell behind 10-0. Fairbairn boosted the lead to 17-13 in the third quarter and made it 20-20 with his second field goal after three quarters.
Then Mills and the offense cratered again in the fourth quarter.
“It’s hard winning when you can’t finish,” Smith said. “You can’t turn the ball over. You definitely can’t have a turnover in the end zone. That really hurt us. Of course, the last one did, too.
“That’s a critical situation. That’s a time when you cannot have a turnover down in that area, and it’s pretty much over if you do. Can’t let games come down to one play there. I’m more upset about that interception in the end zone. When you get down there, you’ve got to be able to capitalize with a touchdown.”
Smith and Hamilton have to find a way for the offense to actually score in the fourth quarter, which hasn’t happened since last season. It starts with Mills.
“Got to make better decisions, got to protect the ball,” Smith said.
Pierce, who carried 20 times for 80 yards, was on the bench when they needed him on the field the most. Hamilton had Burkhead at running back.
“Whenever you put the ball on the ground, it’s not a good thing, but we’re not going to stop playing Dameon just based on that,” Smith said. “Just got to protect the ball better like everybody else.”
Burkhead ran three times for 9 yards and caught four passes for 21, a 5.3 average. When Pierce is on the bench, defenses don’t have to worry about the running game.
The worst thing that can happen to the Texans is not keeping the game close enough to win in the fourth quarter. They’re one of the NFL’s worst teams, and if the offense continues to fold in the fourth quarter, they might end up as the worst team of all, which, of course, would put them in position to draft a franchise quarterback.
(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).