Despite the loss in Las Vegas, Sunday was undoubtedly Mills best performance of the year and perhaps of his career. As the Texans host Nashville and the undefeated Eagles on Thursday night football, Mills faces an uphill battle against a common strength.
What was different in Vegas, post bye-week?
Third down efficiency was the standout from the box scores, going 9 of 12 before the late 4th quarter failings that plague this offence. It was a season high of 404 yards on offence, 296 coming through the air. Mills’ footwork, pocket presence & touch was flowing freely. It looked smooth and confident to heights that were reminiscent of last years performances. A blemish of throwing a pick-six, showed a lack of elite resilience that is reserved for only a few. But it was his first serviceable road display & one that could be given pass-marks at this level.
The success was largely supported by a growing run game, as the Texans O-Line improves under the stewardship of coach Warhop, they have become a far more proficient & willing run-blocking line. Their ability to clear lanes, with the emergence of Dameon Pierce, who’s reached over 500-yards through 6 games, is a major factor in team progression. The jump from blowouts to a series of close losses has been fulled by the run-game, requiring a true team effort.
A Far Sterner Set of Tests Await
The Texans are a self proclaimed “run-first team” but they are also a run dependant team. The Titans and Philadelphia are superior defences, ranked 3rd versus run and 4th overall, respectively by DVOA (footballoutsiders.com). Therefore, the glaring question will be answered: when limiting the run game, can the Texans continue to raise offensive performances & be competitive with two division leaders? It may appear rhetorical but will it provide a clearer barometer of Mills & team progression, rather than any potential post bye-week exceptions.
The comparisons of Mills versus his draft class need to be abdicated, as it’s entirely irrelevant as he steps under-centre each week. As tests against upper-end teams is a truer test of his viability. Rather than 400 yards against Raiders 3rd-worst passing defence in the league (DVOA), who have given up 7th most points per game, to date.
Underpowered Weapons, That May Weaken?
The time length of Nico Collins’ absence remains uncertain. A groin injury may prohibit him from meaningful action over these closely placed games. Further the questions around Cook’s drops, loss of form or reported trade-block status may leave the Texans without their top two wide-receivers. The undoubted impact of Jordan Atkins, who’s provided significant after-the-catch ability, will need to be relied upon. The recent signing of Tyron Johnson, who’s calling card is speed, combined with Phillip Dorsett may provide an avenue to stretch the field and alleviate some pressure off the run game.
It can’t be argued that Mills was left under-served by the front office in terms of skill position talent. But what may just be a narrowly un-settled debate, is if Mills can elevate others, rather than being reliant upon them.
A Texans Sized Hole That Can’t be Covered
Mills cannot be simply judged on wins. This team’s deep flaws on both sides of the ball, exclude that from being a fair judgment. Particularly, as Houston’s run defence continues to be an abysmal line that opposing running-backs and motioning receivers break through with relative ease. They’ve already recorded a dizzying per-game average of 164.7 rushing-yard conceded, prior to meeting the proverbial buzzsaws of Philly & Tennessee. Neither will be a welcomed sight.
Derrick Henry has 263 yards & 7 touchdowns in last three games against Houston. Stacking the box with 7 or 8 defenders and hoping the day’s of AJ Brown & anonymous tight-end’s being the resulting punishment are gone. The turnover at Titans skill positions have undoubtedly weakened them but it presents a faint hope to predicate Sunday’s game plan.
A Cross-Roads In The Season and Future Outlook
If the Texans are to lose, as expected, to Titans & Eagles, then the outlook on their flaws may have worsened. But in doing so this may give the whole team some freedom to experiment and understand every player in the building. As what they can offer in two years time becomes more important than the now. So development becomes paramount, even more so than it’s been.
Similarly, if Davis can come out of this double-header, playing on a short week, in a growing positive light, then it might be time to re-evaluate. But form what we’ve witnessed to date, the debut of the battle red helmet is a more probable highlight than any on-field success, beyond more rookie development & future hope.
After 5 games, have the Texans improved? What lies ahead for the remainder of the 12 games? What does the front office need to see from this coaching staff & players to rebuild stronger than the last two off-seasons?
After 5 Games – What did we learn?
Week 1 – the Texans tied 20-20 with Indianapolis as the offence failed to capitalise on when the opponents gifted them a result, blowing a 17-point lead. Lovie Smith shied away from kicking a field goal and opted to defend for the tie, rather than entrusting his $4m-a-year kicker.
Week 2 – the 16-9 loss against a stuttering Denver offence & head coaching blunders, was another game squandered. The offence couldn’t muster a single touchdown and gradually faded. So much so, that Denver’s only 6 of the day, in the third quarter, effectively ended the contest. The defence held admirably but faded late, with overuse.
Week 3 – the late 23-20, 4th quarter loss, was gifted by Davis Mills air-mailing an interception into the chest of a Chicago linebacker, who then kicked the winning field-goal. Jalen Pitre announced himself to the league with a 2-interception game, but the defense gave up an ungodly 280-yards on the ground. And despite Chicago’s offensive struggles the Texans offence stalled too often & continued their ineptness in the 4th quarter.
Week 4 – an abject start left Houston down 21-points to Justin Herbert’s Chargers. Despite drawing within three points, their inability to convert a red-zone fumble into a 7, saw the game drift away. The Texans settling for a field-goal, allowed L.A. to drive the field with considerable ease. Houston’s offence found some sporadic flashes but it was too infrequent to consider win-worthy, for a 4th consecutive week, 34-24 the final.
Week 5 – Houstons first win (13-6) was a product of the defence’s best outing to date, holding the Jaguars to 6-points, turning the ball over 5 times, negating the need for more than the 13-points put up by the Dameon Pierce lead offence. The running back’s highlight play sealed it, as he bounced off 7 would-be tacklers to set up 1st & goal, before punching it home two plays later. It was not a reliable winning formula but removing the winless tag, was an important one for coaching staff and players.
Area’s of Focus Post Bye Week
The lack of pace in this rebuild is concerning. It will take time but they have to getting younger and faster, which is needed no more so than at linebacker. Garrett Wallow & Christian Harris need to be battled tested after this season, to avoid facing the need for three new starting linebackers.
The drop in play from Roy Lopez has been notable, can he get back to the levels of late in the ’22 season where he looked highly promising? As his inability to defend the run, having his pads consistently turned towards the sideline with limited rush ability, are adding Defensive-Tackle to the team’s endless list.
The Texans have a big decision to make with BOTH their tackles this off-season. The cap/cash hit makes Laremey Tunsil either a risky trade candidate where his contract will limit other clubs willingness to give up draft capital or an he can be extended. His pass-protection has never been in doubt. But the improvements or willingness in the run-game has been a stark improvement. With his play being at such a high level, it has justified a 3 or 4 year extension, at a crucial position.
Tytus Howard is similarly putting together a nice year and has shown developments under new coach George Warhop. The 2019 1st-round pick is set to play out the ’23 season on a fully guaranteed 5th year option. Being in a position to lock-up both players as book-ends would be a sign of stability and direction this re-build currently lacks. Whilst allowing consideration of how they address the interior of the line, as a solid OL group is something all good teams boast.
Can Nico Collins handle a workload? Although he currently leads the team in yards, there’s a constant cry to hive him more touches. The inconsistencies perhaps preclude him from WR1 consideration but can he prove to become a reliable weapon? The flashes are clear & fear of over-working should be dismissed. Looking his way, in the context of diminishing returns from Cooks, has to be a focus. Otherwise the position may be completely overhauled.
There’s limited doubt about Dameon Pierce as a starting calibre tail-back but keeping him healthy will be vital. Overworking a running back, within the context of this season, would be short-sighted. So finding more players they can trust to take some carries, seems like an inevitable move. However, based on record of this team’s management of the position, it’s a viable concern.
The Tight-End position is one that has churned over unexpectedly with the release of Pharaoh Brown. The return of Brevin Jordan should be watched with intrigue as he must show he can outplay Jordan Atkins who, after his release form the Giants has undoubtedly looked the team’s best pass-catching option at the position. Tight-End is a multi-year acclimation but Brevin must show he’s worth the teams faith going into next year as an F-TE. As the primary blocking role may have been filled by O.J. Howard as the teams primary Y-TE. Not forgetting the wildcard of Teagan Qintoriano, he could be something, he could be nothing. But we can’t afford to not find out.
There’s no doubting the clear potential of Derek Stingley,Kenyon Green & Jalen Pitre. They’ve all had high’s and lows as they navigate the climb from college to become a certified pro. But lasting & significant progress towards genuine competitiveness for Houston would be if, Caserio can check-off three cornerstone position. A depth chart with a lock-down corner, a mauling left guard and play-making safety are three facets the Texans have rarely had the luxury of calling upon all at once.
Practice Squad Raiding
This squad’s needs at premium positions will need to wait until the draft and may be partly eased, yet not solved in free-agency. However, any player with a semblance of value should be explored and given game time. Picking guys from practice squads is not a straightforward process and requires some luck but any pay-off would far outweigh any risk. A luxury that ownership may well not accept beyond this year.
Post Bye WeekOutlook
2022 has shown that the Texans progress is not ahead of schedule by any means. A consecutive free agent class has been expensive paying limited dividends. The investments made via the draft will take time to mature but the early outlook is positive. Davis Mills has nearly all but proven he’s incapable of leading a team to wins, so their plans at quarterback remains a mystery. And Caserio faces more questions about the remainder of the roster than he can possibly address in a single off-season. So any utilisation of the remaining games to uncover even modest levels of talent, would help ease his ever lengthening talent wish-list.