Texans’ Tim Kelly on languishing running game: ‘Not one person’s fault’

Frustration mounts, but touchdowns and yards don’t.

The Texans’ languishing running game, despite a heavy emphasis on establishing the run and signing three former Pro Bowl selections in the offseason, continues to struggle mightily.

Plunging into the line of scrimmage in any direction doesn’t meet with the desired outcome: a physical, productive running game.

Instead, the Texans rank last in the NFL in rushing offense with just 765 yards on the ground. They’re last in average per carry with 3.2 yards per run. And they’re 29th overall with six touchdown runs.

After signing former Pro Bowl running backs Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay and retaining former All-Pro running back David Johnson this offseason, Ingram, who remains the Texans’ leading rusher with 294 yards, has been traded to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for a 2024 seventh-round draft pick. Lindsay was released after rushing for 130 yards and averaging 2.6 yards per carry and claimed off waivers by the Miami Dolphins this week. And Johnson has rushed for just 137 yards, no touchdown and a 3.0 average per carry.

Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans

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Lindsay’s final carry as a Texan was emblematic of his tenure with the team and what plagues the running game. He was tackled for a three-yard loss by Harold Landry as he was completely unblocked. 

Whether it’s the blocking of an offensive line missing three injured starters in tackles Laremy Tunsil and Marcus Cannon and center Justin Britt not generating enough holes and push up front or the running backs not being elusive or powerful enough to make something happen on their own, the problem persists.

“I think it’s everything,” offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. “I think it’s the opponent that you’re playing, I think it’s who’s doing what, who’s calling what. I’ve got to do a better job dialing up some plays. It’s a collective effort, so it’s not one person’s fault, it’s not one position group’s fault. 

“That’s why we’re in here today, trying to figure out a better way to go and be more productive in the run game. Obviously, we stuck to it on Sunday, but we want to be more productive, we want to be more efficient.”

Kelly is correct in his assessment. The Texans defeated the Tennessee Titans 22-13 largely on the strength of five turnovers, including four interceptions. They ran the football 38 times for 83 yards, averaging 2.2 yards per run as quarterback Tyrod Taylor scrambled for two touchdowns.

Rex Burkhead was the leading rusher with 40 yards on 18 carries, averaging 2.2 yards per run. Johnson ran it 13 times for 18 yards for a 1.4 average.

“You look at being able to attack the defenses on different levels, different zones, different areas, so you’re not just kind of sitting there hammering the same part of the defense the entire game,” Kelly said. “We were able to take that time that we had during the bye week and we were able to identify what we do well, and we tried to do that again on last Sunday and we’ll try to do it again this Sunday.”

It doesn’t really matter what direction the Texans run the football, the results are similarly ineffectual.

The Texans are averaging 5.24 yards running around left end on 25 outside runs, but they’re averaging 3.25 yards off left tackle, 2.94 yards off left guard, 2.6 yards up the middle, 2.57 yards off right guard, 2.75 yards off left tackle and 4.43 yards off right tackle.

“I think the biggest thing with that is we have to block better in those particular situations,” Texans coach David Culley said. “We were better last week, weren’t where we needed to be, but we just need to be better at that. I think now we are doing things more, as I mentioned coming out of the bye week, we are doing things more that suits what we do upfront and what our backs do.

The Texans rank last in total offense and scoring offense (15 points per game)

The Texans recently acquired running back Royce Freeman off waivers from the Carolina Panthers when they placed running back Scottie Phillips on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.

Freeman is in the final year of a $3.94 million rookie contract. He rushed for 1,264 yards and eight touchdowns for the Broncos.

“He’s got good vision,” Kelly said. “He’s got good patience, runs hard. Obviously, we haven’t seen him here in a lot of situations. But going against our defense he’s done a good job of giving us looks. He’s been smart and diligent in how he prepares and the amount of time we spend on the offense. Been very impressed with him so far.”

Freeman (5-foot-11, 229 pounds) has run the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds. He was drafted by the Broncos in the third round out of Oregon.

In 2018 as a rookie, he rushed for 521 yards and five touchdowns on 132 carries. He gained 496 yards and scored three touchdowns with 43 receptions for 256 yards and one score in 2019.

Houston Texans v Miami Dolphins

Photo: Getty Images

A former undrafted free agent from Mississippi, Phillips has rushed for 13 yards on six carries this season with two receptions for nine yards. Phillips is not eligible to be designated for return from injured reserve until Nov. 30, but his pending return led to Lindsay’s release.

“We’re top heavy right there with guys,” Culley said. “We’ve got Scottie coming back at some point. We just felt like it was best for us and for Phillip for us to make the move.”

Following the bye week, the Texans’ coaching staff, including Kelly, shared their evaluations of the offense with the players. It didn’t paint a pretty picture, but it was an honest portrayal.

“Just the conversation that we had was looking at a self-scout, basically some of the stuff that we had done well up until that point and some of the stuff that we didn’t do well, and leaning on a lot of those concepts that the guys, myself as well as the rest of the offense, had success at,” Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “Just building around that, and we’re still going to continue to keep doing that.”

Kelly indicated that he doesn’t anticipate shaking up the personnel much in the wake of cutting Lindsay.

“I think they’ll just kind of keep going as they’ve been playing,” Kelly said. “Obviously, Rex’s workload has kind of increased a little bit, David’s workload has kind of increased. then we have Royce. 

“Those guys have done everything we’ve asked them to do. They’ve done a good job learning the game plan and coming out every day and practicing. I look forward to them doing the same thing.”

Burkhead has rushed for just 69 yards on 25 carries, but he has impressed his teammates with his straightforward, decisive running style and his professionalism.

“Rex, he’s out there running the ball like he’s got some young legs,” left guard Tytus Howard said. “He’s doing a great job. I think after somebody hits him, he just keeps going. I think that just brings a lot of energy to the offense, making the run game a lot better. 

“I just applaud him for the type of guy he is. He does this each and every day at practice, so you know what you’re going to get out of Rex every day, whether it’s practice, a game or whatever. He’s a real pro.”

As deficient as the running game is, Burkhead, a former Nebraska standout who has also played for the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, represents their top option,

“Rex played his butt off this past week,” Taylor said. “He’s done a great job in the run game as well as in the passing game too. Pass blocking, kind of checks all the boxes. That’s something that we ask out of our backs, and Rex has done a great job.”

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