Stymied at every turn, stonewalled at the line of scrimmage, unable to build necessary balance and challenged to score points and move the football, the Texans' offense is lunging in frustration.
Ranked last in the NFL in scoring offense with 13.6 points per game, ranked last in rushing offense with 1,008 rushing yards and 3.3 per carry with New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram still leading the Texans with the 294 yards he rushed for before being traded for a 2022 seventh-round draft pick, the Texans' offense is searching for answers.
It's a major reason why the Texans are 2-11 heading into Sunday's road game against the 2-11 Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the two teams the AFC South franchise has managed to beat this year.
Texans coach David Culley didn't ascribe blame to offensive coordinator Tim Kelly.
“No, it’s not the play-calling," Culley said. "It’s us executing what’s being called and making sure our players are doing what we need them to do, and that if we’re asking them to do something that maybe they’re not as strong at doing, as maybe some other schemes that we’re doing. We’ve looked into that, different kinds of schemes to see what fits us better with our personnel moving forward.”
The running game gets David Johnson back from the reserve-COVID-19 list, but running back Rex Burkhead, the leading rusher during Sunday's 33-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks with 40 yards on 11 carries, is sidelined with a hip injury. The Texans only got 15 yards on 11 carries from Royce Freeman when Burkhead went down Sunday.
Is it the blocking that doesn't open many holes? Do the backs lack explosiveness, power and elusiveness?
Is it all of the above that's plaguing the Texans' moribund running game?
“Obviously, it’s not been very good," Culley said. "The thing that we’ve got to continue to do is just figure out what is best for our people, what they do best, and do those things instead of doing runs that we feel like are good runs, but our personnel may not fit those runs.
"With our running back situation right now, we may have to limit that even more as far as what we do in the running game. We’ve just got to continue to see what we do best, which has not been a lot right now, and just continue to get better at doing what we feel like we do best.”
Because the Texans are so one-dimensional and averaged 2.5 yards on 25 runs against the Seahawks, they threw the football 49 times. Although rookie quarterback Davis Mills gamely passed for a career-high 331 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions, there wasn't much the Texans could do other than run screen plays to try to manufacture some easier plays and protect his body.
“We weren’t going to put him in harm’s way," Culley said. "We want to get the ball out of his hands. He did a good job of doing that. This was a football team that got up the field, they like to get to the quarterback, and we were able to have some success doing the screens because of that.
“It puts a lot of pressure on him, and that’s why we’ve got to figure out a way to get it right for him. I thought he did a good job of handling what he had to handle. Again, we don’t want to come out of ballgames having thrown a ball 49 times. Obviously, we threw the ball that much simply because it got out of hand there in the fourth quarter. But that’s not where we want to end up, and what we want to do.”
Not only did Mills complete his first 14 throws to set a franchise record for the most completions to open a game, the strong-armed third-round draft pick from Stanford displayed growing maturity in terms of his field presence and savvy. The Atlanta native had an impressive touchdown pass on the run after eluding pressure, keeping his eyes on his target while on the move to connect with rookie tight end Brevin Jordan for a touchdown pass on his first drive of the game.
If only Mills could have sustained that high level play, or had a running game to complement his passes.
Mills completed 16 of 21 passes for 175 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions in the first half for a 116.2 passer rating. He finished 33 of 49 for the game for a respectable 93.2 passer rating, but he dropped to 0-7 as a starter in losing his first game after being named the Texans' starter for the remainder of the season as the replacement for veteran Tyrod Taylor.
“A couple of things he did well was, first, he protected the ball," Culley said. "He made some good throws. I thought he got a little jumpy in the pocket a couple of times. I thought he started to feel the rush a little bit in the second half. He’s just got to trust up front and he’s got to be able to keep his eyes down the field to see what’s happening, and not be aware of what’s happening around him. I thought he got a little jumpy yesterday.”
The lack of a running game is essentially turning the Texans' offense into a one-armed operation.
“Well, your pass game needs to be effective whether you are getting 'backers to move or not," wide receiver Chris Conley said. "But that being said, we would like to be a team that has complimentary football. If the run game is not working or going well, we would like to identify why it’s not. Do we have a hat on a hat? Are we moving in the right direction? Do we have mistakes or holes in our communication? Really pinpointing what it is and attacking that, because if your run game is moving well, your pass game is moving well. It’s hard to go the other way around, your pass game moving and then trying to get your run game going.”
The Texans failed to score in the second half. The offense repeatedly has issues with adjustments.
“At this point, I feel like sometimes we’ve been a little bit out-adjusted," Conley said. "We’ve been making the adjustments, but we haven’t taken them to the field to the point where we could put a full drive together, if that makes sense. We’ve maybe adjusted one or two plays and it’s taken us maybe a drive or two to really figure out how that adjustment is going to take place.
"The defense makes an adjustment too, but it has to be faster than that. You have to be able to take that adjustment and have to be able to make it work on the first drive, because really those first three drives of the second half, those might be the only drives you get if the other team is holding onto the ball for a long time. So, you have to be able to take those first three drives and get points with them. Even if it’s a close game, you have to be able to get something out of those drives."
Whether it's more creative plays, a semblance of a running game or an explosive play downfield, the Texans need answers.
“We can’t become stagnated in the second half," Conley said. "If we want to stay in games with offenses like the Seahawks that have the ability to score and the ability to hold onto the ball for a long time, we have to be able to do the same thing as well. You can’t rely on the defense all the time to give you the ball great field position in the red zone.
"That’s just not the league that we play in. You have to be able to move the ball down the field and sustain drives, score. But our ability to move the ball in the second half has to become better. We have to take the adjustments and apply them and even if the adjustment is something you haven’t talked about before. We have to do a better job of bringing that to the second half.”