JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Davis Mills gamely approached his second round as the Texans’ starting quarterback. He was accurate, poised and composed, displaying a growing rhythm last Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
Mills set a franchise record by completing his first 14 passes of the game and finished with a career-high 331 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions. He took care of the football. What he and the Texans offense failed to do was score many points.
The 33-13 loss at NRG Stadium was heavily impacted by the Texans' lack of a viable running game, a recurring theme for the NFL’s last-ranked rushing offense. The Texans are also the lowest scoring offense in the league with a 13.6 scoring average.
As Mills prepares for his eighth NFL start after going 0-7 previously as the starter for the 2-11 Texans heading into Sunday’s road game against the 2-11 Jacksonville Jaguars, the strong-armed third-round draft pick from Stanford wants to do more than simply be careful and protect the football. He wants to lead the Texans into the end zone more than once and win as the starting quarterback for the first time.
“Just finding ways to get the ball in the end zone, scoring a lot more points,” said Mills, who was forced to throw 49 times against Seattle when running back Rex Burkhead left the game with hip and quadriceps injuries.. “I am doing what they are asking of me. Trying to do what is best for the team, but obviously you are not in the best situation when you are to throw that many times.
“I think just being patient. The shots will come but most of it is just taking what the defense will give you and if you have to take some passes under the defense, they will eventually dive down on it and you’ll be able to get in behind them.”
Part of what Mills has experienced are lapses in consistency. When he’s had a good game – a passer rating of 93.0 or higher in four games – Mills averaged a 55.1 rating in the three games after those high-water performances for 465 passing yards and six interceptions in the three ensuing games.
Mills passed for 312 yards and three touchdowns against the New England Patriots with no turnovers. One week later, the Texans lost to the Indianapolis Colts, 31-3, as he passed for 243 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns. The Seattle game, as the replacement for veteran Tyrod Taylor, was a step in the right direction.
“He did a good job,” offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. “First of all, did a good job handling stuff in the run game, getting us out of bad plays, making some different alerts that we asked him to do. As far as playing composed in the pocket, made some good throws, particularly on the run, did a great job on that opening drive moving down the field. Some definite good things that we are looking to build on and hopefully we can just continue to improve at that position.”
In particular, second-half scoring has been a sore point for the Texans’ offense. They failed to score in the second half against Seattle. They have one touchdown in the second half in the past five games and have been outscored 194-62 in the second half this season.
“He has to get us in the end zone in the second half,” Texans coach David Culley said. “But, we around him, we have to do the things that we did in the first half to give him an opportunity to do so. We do not give him an opportunity to be able to get us down the field and do the things in the passing game that we did in the first half.”
Not having a legitimate running game, the Texans are averaging 3.3 yards per carry and have rushed for just 1,008 yards, hamstrings the passing game and makes them a one-dimensional offense. That’s why the Texans have built in a lot of screen passes to protect Mills and manufacture something that resembles running the football with short throws.
“In certain scenarios, it’s tough where you kind of get stuck in passing scenarios where the defense knows what you need to do,” Mills said. “But it kind gives us more of a focus on trying to improve the run game.”
Mills was only sacked twice against the Seahawks, partly because of the strategy they followed.
“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. They like to get to the quarterback, and we were able to have some success doing the screens.”
Mills has passed for eight touchdowns and eight interceptions and has an 81.1 passer rating.
Mills will square off against Trevor Lawrence, the first overall pick of the draft from Clemson, who has struggled during an awkward season for the Jaguars. The Jaguars fired controversial coach Urban Meyer this week and replaced him with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who’s popular in a locker room that had grown to dislike and not respect Meyer due to his myriad of personal failings and confrontations with players and staff. Lawrence has passed for nine touchdowns and 14 interceptions and has a 68.9 passer rating and the Jaguars are averaging 13.8 points per game.
“Just a quick decision-making process,” Culley said when asked what he wants to see from Mills. “Quicker decisions when he’s not sure of things in the pocket, much better job of getting the ball out of his hands instead of holding it trying to get it down the field. In the second half of this past game, he held it a little when he could have gotten it out to the backs.”
Mills completed 33 of 49 passes. He went 4 for 9 in the third quarter for 38 yards. He was 8 of 11 for 82 yards in the fourth quarter.
“He made some good throws, he protected the ball,” Culley said. “I thought he got a little jumpy in the pocket a couple of times. I thought he started to feel the rush a little in the second half.
“He’s got to trust up the front, and he’s got to keep his eyes down the field to see what’s happening and not be aware of what’s happening around him.”
Lawrence threw three interceptions and three touchdowns against the Texans in a 37-21 loss for the Jaguars in the opening game of the season. He had four interceptions, a career-high, in a loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Mills, an Atlanta native, said he doesn’t know Lawrence, a fellow Georgia native, very well.
“It’ll be pretty cool, I guess, because we’re both rookies, both from Georgia,” Mills said. “I wouldn’t say super well, but we ran into each other a couple of times growing up. I haven’t really paid too much attention to their offense, more focused on their defense.”
Mills has maintained a steady, even-keel approach throughout all of the ups and downs of his rookie season. That has served him well, and he has earned the trust of older teammates, including leading receiver Brandin Cooks.
“I think the biggest thing for him is just to continue to grow, from his first start to his last one,” Cooks said. “ His decision making, when the play is not there, being able to find your back and take the checkdown and keep the chain moving and being efficient. I think as long as he continues to grow in that aspect, he has a great chance to be great. You see that from him throughout practice, just not forcing things that aren’t there.”