Bashed into the artificial turf, chased and caught relentlessly by star defensive tackle Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams’ aggressive defense, Texans rookie quarterback Davis Mills played Sunday under heavy duress.
Mills was sacked a season-high five times, including 1 1/2 times by Donald, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and twice by Leonard Floyd. He was hit nine times overall during a 38-22 defeat Sunday at NRG Stadium as the Texans lost their seventh consecutive game.
Mills rallied the Texans a bit while orchestrating a hurry-up offense in the fourth quarter with the game already out of reach and the Rams having already pulled starting quarterback Matthew Stafford after three quarters while holding a commanding 38-0 lead. It wasn’t nearly enough, though, despite Mills completing 29 of 38 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for a 106.3 passer rating.
“They just have a really good front seven that we were fighting really hard to protect against, but they’ve got good players on that side of the ball,” Mills said. “They got after me a couple times, but I thought overall our line played extremely well protection, handled what they were bringing. No crazy pressures or anything, and I thought we handled it well overall.
“I think I’m seeing it a lot better than I initially did, kind of going out there and making sure I see what I need to, and I don’t really need to see much more than that. I’ve definitely improved from my first game.”
Mills delivered a 45-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the second-longest pass of his career, and hit rookie tight end Brevin Jordan with a well-placed end zone spiral for another score.
The third-round draft pick from Stanford had the second-highest passer rating of his career. Increasing the tempo made a difference for Mills.
“I’ve just always been comfortable pushing the tempo out there,” Mills said. “I think it’s a little easier as a quarterback just to find a rhythm when you’re making quick decisions, spreading the ball across the field to your different playmakers on the edge. I think we do it well as a team, because we’re built well for stuff like that.
“It’s tough. The results of the game is still the result. It wasn’t a win, but I think the guys are starting to rally around the energy we felt from the success in the fourth quarter.”
The fourth quarter performance by Mills was encouraging to the Texans with the exception of him being intercepted once.
“He's progressing, that's a learning experience for him,” Texans coach David Culley said. “The thing about it is during that time, anytime they had pressure on him, the one thing he didn't do he did not mishandle the football during that pressure. He protected the ball. The interception he had was just a poor throw.
“It had nothing to do with pressure. He was right outside the pocket just made a poor throw and they got an interception, but he's progressing very well. And I like where he's at right now. And I like what he did with our offense at the end of the game, the way he handled things. And he's just getting better and better.”
Mills has lost all of his six starts for the 1-7 Texans. He’s passed for 1,357 yards, seven touchdowns and eight interceptions for an 80.2 passer rating. He’s been sacked 20 times.
“I don't think him recognizing it had anything to do with it,” Culley said. “Basically, we didn't block very well on some of those pressures today. The fact that he held onto the ball and was able to not have a bad play, I thought, was a positive because he knew there was nothing he could do.
“All we tell him in that situation is, ‘You protect the football.’ That happens. Last week that happened to him one time he didn't because he didn't see it. He saw things today, and he did a nice job of doing that.”
The Texans hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown in 12 quarters until scoring Sunday in the fourth quarter, a span that dated back to an Oct. 10 loss to the New England Patriots when Mills threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Conley on a flea-flicker play.
“It's tough,” Mills said. “It's frustrating at times, but the guys in the locker room still rally together. We know that we're capable of a lot, and we’ve just got to go out there and make plays. I think we showed that later in the game.”
Throughout the Texans’ difficult season, Mills has displayed poise and composure even when things have unraveled around him.
“I think the thing that impresses me the most about Davis he's so even-keeled,” veteran running back Rex Burkhead said .”It doesn't matter if we're down a ton there, not converting, not being successful, he's always the same quarterback. He's the same person throughout the game.
“For a rookie to have that mindset, even in practice, is exact same way. Super impressive to me being a nine-year veteran. I really haven't seen that, honestly, from a lot of younger guys. He does that very well and takes command in the huddle there, especially when we need it late on.”