Mandatory Credit: Photo by Trask Smith/CSM/Shutterstock (13436021bx) Houston Texans cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (24) during the 4th quarter of an NFL football game between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX. The Chargers won the game 34 to 24 NFL Chargers vs Texans, USA – 02 Oct 2022
The Texans’ incompetence and inconsistency continue to amaze.
They tantalize and tease their fans before crushing them with fourth-quarter collapses that have become agonizingly familiar.
As a result, the Texans moved one step closer to the first pick in the draft. They are the only team that doesn’t have a victory.
Their ineptness happened again Sunday when, this time, it was the defense rather than the offense that cratered in the fourth quarter of a 34-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Texans fell behind 27-7 at halftime, and a parade of fans deserted NRG Stadium, perhaps to get home to watch the Astros – Houston’s only winning team – defeat Tampa Bay 3-1 to elevate their record to 104-55.
“(It’s) just tough when you’re playing against a good team and you get in a hole like we did,” coach Lovie Smith said. “I like the way the team fought back (and) gave ourselves a chance to win at the end, but we didn’t finish the game the way we need to.”
In their best display of the young season, the Texans rallied behind quarterback Davis Mills’ two touchdowns passes in the second half to score two touchdowns and a field goal to pull within 27-21.
After Ka’imi Fairbairn kicked a 40-yard field goal, the Texans had reduced the deficit to 27-24 with 8:30 left in the game – plenty of time to engineer a miraculous victory.
The Texans were desperate for Smith’s defense that finished with one sack and no takeaways to stop the Chargers and quarterback Justin Herbert. Not only could the defense not prevent the 12-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that used 6:02 off the clock, but the Texans went braindead on two crucial plays – both passes to running back Austin Ekeler, who was left wide open.
On fourth-and-2 at the Chargers’ 42, coach Brandon Staley went for it, and Herbert found Ekeler running all alone on the right side for an easy 21-yard gain. Then, on second down at the Texans’ 14, another miscommunication left Ekeler alone again for the touchdown that secured the victory.
“We had an opportunity late where we were down one score, and we needed to get a stop defensively, and the two big pass plays doomed us,” Smith said. “Big plays in the passing game really hurt us.
“Whenever you see a guy wide open like that, there’s a breakdown in communication. I felt like we were in a position where that shouldn’t happen, but it did. Yes, miscommunication on those plays.”
One thing we’ve learned about the Texans four games into the season is they’re a mistake waiting to happen. Let us count the ways they screwed up and either wasted opportunities for themselves or provided the Chargers with opportunities.
After Mills was intercepted on the first series to set up a short field for the Chargers, they trailed 7-0.
On their second series, Mills connected with Brandin Cooks for 22 yards to the Chargers’ 22, but left guard Kenyon Green was called for holding. After a 10-yard sack, the Texans had to punt.
On third-and-5 at the Chargers’ 29, left tackle Laremy Tunsil was called for a false start. Fairbairn missed a 46-yard field goal wide, wide, wide left – the worst kick of his career. He looked like he was kicking in the wind at Cleveland.
The Chargers responded with back-to-back touchdown drives that ended with Ekeler runs. He had three touchdowns in the game after coming to Houston without one. The defense played as if it didn’t notice Ekeler scored 20 last season, including eight on receptions.
Down 21-0 with 10 minutes left in the first half, the Texans got some life when rookie running back Dameon Pierce turned the right corner, outran the Chargers and scored on a 75-yard run.
The next time the Texans got the ball, they faced fourth-and-1 at the Chargers’ 24 with 1:01 left in the first half. Smith went for it. Good call. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton called for Mills to roll to his right and get the ball to running back Rex Burkhead. Bad call.
Outside linebacker Khalil Mack – the Chargers’ best pass rusher – was left unblocked. Another miscommunication. Mills never had a chance. Mack sacked him for an 8-yard loss. The Chargers added another field goal to give them the 20-point halftime advantage.
“We could have easily kicked a field goal, but we needed points in that situation,” Smith said. “We just didn’t execute the right way. The right blitz at the right time. (That) was an opportunity we let get away.”
At that point, it looked as if the Texans might give up 50 points. The defense had been obliterated. Mills had thrown for 76 yards and had a 60.4 rating.
Then, as the end of the third quarter approached, Mills seemed rejuvenated. He threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Burkhead and an 18-yarder to Brandin Cooks to make it 27-21.
The Texans created a huge break on the ensuing kickoff when safety M.J. Stewart forced a fumble linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin recovered at the Chargers’ 16. Then, typically, the Texans wasted the opportunity to score a third consecutive touchdown.
On second-and-7 at the 13, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery blew through the line and sacked Mills for an 8-yard loss, causing a fumble that tight end Jordan Akins fell on at the 22. Mills threw incomplete on third down, and Fairbairn kicked his only field goal to pull the Texans within three points.
That’s when the Texans needed their defense the most, and that’s when mental blunders cost them a chance to earn their first victory.
“After four games, we can’t talk about being close anymore,” Smith said. “We’re not a good team yet. Good teams find a way to win at the end, and we haven’t been able to get over that hurdle.”
And that hurdle may be too high for a team that may trip over it.
(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).