Davis Mills scanned the field on the fly, decisively reading the defense to reach a fast conclusion. It was time for the Texans’ precocious rookie quarterback to strike deep again.
Mills had options on the play as veteran wide receiver Chris Conley ran a fly pattern. Conley was supposed to operate as a decoy on the play to clear space and allow for an intermediate throw to a tight end.
When Mills recognized that a safety was sitting on that route, he adjusted. It was a savvy move by Mills, who delivered a perfectly thrown spiral over the shoulder pads of Conley for a 41-yard touchdown pass that boosted the Texans to a halftime lead on their way to a 41-29 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
“Really, the concept of that play to the front side is you have a go route on the outside to really clear things out for the tight end on the inside who is running about a 10-yard out," Conley said. “The film study this week, we knew they liked to slow-play it on the outside. If we wanted to take a shot, we could take a shot and Davis recognized that. He recognized they were slow-playing it and the corner wasn't really getting out and he gave me a shot on a play that wasn't necessarily called that way, we were able to make a big play for six.
“Davis played exceptionally well. He's been taking coaching really well. He's gone and he's continued to work at things and he's not let setbacks really deter him or change his mind about how he's going to play. He's gone out and played aggressive and that's what we asked him to do is just keep taking coaching and get better and he's been doing that.”
This represents the Texans’ fourth win of the season, their first time winning two in a row and improved Mills to 2-8 as a first-year starter. It also served notice that the strong-armed third-round draft pick from Stanford is displaying enough arm talent and growth that he deserves consideration to be the Texans’ starting quarterback in 2022 depending on what potential upgrades might be available in the offseason.
“I thought he's been a quality player the entire season,” said Chargers coach Brandon Staley, who interviewed for the Texans’ head coaching position that went to David Culley last offseason. “I think he's given them a real chance, and that's why they're starting him. They’re starting him because they feel like he's their best quarterback and they feel like he has a chance to be the starter for that team moving forward.”
Mills completed 21 of 27 passes for 254 yards, two touchdown passes, no interceptions and a 130.6 passer rating, outdueling Chargers Pro Bowl quarterback Justin Herbert. He did it without three starting offensive lineman with left tackle Tytus Howard, left guard Lane Taylor and center Justin Britt on the reserve-COVID-19 list along with top wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
Mills has gone 2-1 in the past three games, passing for 794 yards and five touchdowns.
One week after outdueling Jaguars rookie and top overall pick Trevor Lawrence, Mills beats Herbert as he completed 27 of 35 passes for, 336 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions with one returned for a touchdown and a 92.1 passer rating.
“It was fun,” Mills said. “I feel like it was a great team win. We were kind of firing on all three cylinders: offense, defense and special teams. We had a lot of guys who recently got signed, or just had the opportunity to get their name called, step up and play well. The team showed a lot of fight.”
Before his touchdown pass to Conley, Mills overcame an illegal formation penalty, a false start from tight end Pharaoh Brown and a timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty. He had an outstanding back shoulder throw on the sideline to wide receiver Phillip Dorsett for 36 yards to set up his scoring strike to Conley.
Mills connected later with rookie wide receiver Nico Collins for his first NFL touchdown. He was a combined 7 for 8 for 79 yards and one touchdown for a 147.4 passer rating throwing to Collins and rookie tight end Brevin Jordan.
The Texans entered Sunday with a league-low 34 plays of 20 yards or more. They had six plays of that distance Sunday to tie their season-high. Mills completed 11 of 13 passes for 131 yards in the first half with offensive coordinator Tim Kelly dialing up the plays.
“He's a very mature guy, and he's getting better and better the more he plays,” Texans coach David culley said. “He understands what his job is. I think Tim and our offensive staff have done a great job of making sure that we're giving him things that he can make good, quick decisions with, that he's comfortable with and he's growing with time. He did a great job of protecting the ball.”
The Texans moved on from veteran Tyrod Taylor after a shaky performance against the Indianapolis Colts. It was a wise decision. Taylor was struggling and the Texans needed to evaluate Mills.
Mills completed 77.8 percent of his throws. He averaged 9.4 yards per attempt.
“That’s the mission every week: protect the ball, get the ball in the end zone,” Mills said. “I feel like I'm able to make smarter decisions and not force footballs into tight coverage.
“Our guys protected me up front, so I was able to have time see guys get open. And credit to the receivers for winning their matchups, getting open and allowing me to deliver the ball to them.”
The Texans had 437 yards of total offense. They went 9 for 13 on third downs. They were 3 for 4 in the red zone. And they owned the time of possession advantage, 34:52 to the Chargers’ 25:08 with Mills running the show.
Mills had the second-highest passer rating of his career. He has passed for 2,200 yards, joining David Carr (2,592 yards in 2002) as the only rookie quarterbacks in franchise history to hit the 2,000-yard passing mark.
“I think it continues to build the momentum we kind of brought from last week,” Mills said. “It's kind of just a stepping stone for guys in the locker room and really shows the guys and proves to ourselves that we're capable of winning big games like this and versus capable opponents. I think it's good for the team as a whole.”