When Rex Burkhead left the game Sunday with hip and quadriceps injuries, it left the Texans’ backfield in an untenable situation.
Without the veteran running back and running back David Johnson on the reserve-COVID-19 list after a false positive test, the featured runner in the NFL’s last-ranked running game, the Texans were down to one healthy running back during a 33-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
It was up to Royce Freeman to shoulder the workload. He rushed for 15 yards on 11 carries, but gained 51 yards on six catches out of the backfield.
The former Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers runner did the best he could, with some help from tight end Jordan Akins being utilized as a blocking halfback.
“It was crazy,” Freeman said. “Just the way we started the day off with what happened and then during the game. It’s just a game of football, so you just roll with the punches. I was just glad to be out there and just be out there trying to make plays as the game progressed. Just being the only back out there was quite the experience.
“You just go full-force. You have to embrace it, jump both feet in the water. I just took it as an opportunity to go out there and give it my all and then get different types of plays, different types of looks. Got involved heavily in the pass game and being able to get different types of runs against a great defense. Just embrace the opportunity most importantly.”
The Texans are still shorthanded at running back. Burkhead is not expected to play this week, although he did return to practice Thursday on a limited basis.
Johnson is active again and expected to be the primary back Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Freeman will work in tandem with him.
“You never know what is going to happen, especially with today’s times,” Freeman said. “Just everybody preparing like you’re going to get every single rep, every look that the starter would get and just ready to rock when it’s game day.”
Freeman joined the Texans off waivers from the Panthers when running back Scottie Phillips was placed on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.
Freeman is a bigger back at 5-foot-11, 229 pounds who 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.
Last season, Freeman rushed for 170 yards and no scores as he was the third running back on the depth chart.
“I think we have a good mix of veterans to younger guys on this team, a lot of guys with knowledge, a lot of guys with insight,” Freeman said. “Even me being in my fourth year I can count on somebody like David or Rex to talk to them and hear their ear about certain experiences and what they’ve been through in the league. I think that is something that is truly just valuable, especially as a running back in my own position group.”
The Texans have rushed for just 1,008 yards and averaged only 3.3 yards per carry. Former Texans running back Mark Ingram, traded at midseason to the New Orleans Saint in exchange for a 2024 seventh-round draft pick, remains the team’s leading rusher with 294 yards.
What needs to happen to kickstart a dormant running game?
“I don’t’ know,” Freeman said. “It’s not a question I guess could be easily answered. I think it’s something that we are continuing to work. I think a lot of guys have the mindset that we want to run the ball and we want to be successful at it and I think that’s the first step. We just got to keep applying pressure and I think it will definitely unfold itself as we keep pursuing it.”