Texans’ running game, Rex Burkhead finally break free

Rex Burkhead saw something rare unfolding in front of him: a gaping hole to bust through with plenty of unoccupied, green artificial turf in front of him.

Stonewalled for the majority of the season while crashing into a stacked line of scrimmage with determination for all he could muster in hopes of rescuing doomed running plays, the Texans’ gritty veteran running back had an altogether different experience Sunday against a heavily favored AFC playoff contender.

Burkhead capitalized on the extra running room generated behind an overhauled offensive line ravaged by COVID-19, dashing up the left sideline behind blocks from left tackle Geron Christian Sr. and left guard Cole Toner for a 25-yard touchdown run that set the tone for the Texans’ 41-29 upset victory Sunday at NRG Stadium.

It was the first of two touchdown runs for the former New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals runner who began the season buried on the depth chart behind Mark Ingram, David Johnson and Phillip Lindsay. Burkhead and his straightforward approach to the game grew on the Texans, who traded Ingram to the New Orleans Saints for a 2024 seventh-round draft pick, cut Lindsay and supplanted Johnson with Burkhead, a former Nebraska standout.

Burkhead justified the confidence by rushing for a career-high 149 yards as the Texans rushed for a season-high 189 yards for their most in a game since rushing for 216 yards as a team in 2019 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Burkhead, 31, displayed strength, burst, balance and toughness one week after his status was in doubt for a road win over the Jacksonville Jaguars due to hip and quadriceps injuries.

“Rex is a phenomenal back,” said wide receiver Chris Conley, who provided downfield blocking for Burkhead. “What I saw today is what I've known all season is that Rex still has it. He never lost it. Just needed to get him healthy. Getting that man the ball, he runs with reckless abandonment. He does it every time he touches the rock. It makes it real easy to block for a guy like that who is going to fight and scrap for every yard.”

Los Angeles Chargers v Houston Texans

Photo: Getty Images

The Texans began Sunday with the NFL’s last-ranked running game with averages of 77.3 rushing yards per contest and 3.2 yards per carry.

And Burkhead’s contributions were significant enough in complementing Davis Mills’ passing – 254 yards and two touchdown passes – that the rookie quarterback made it a special point to ask a team staff member to secure the game ball for the veteran back.

“That was right after the last play of the game,” Mills said. “When we took a knee, somebody ran on the field I threw them that game ball and made sure Rex got it because he played extremely well today. Ran hard all day, love to see it.”

WIth the Texans down 18 players and missing left tackle Tytus Howard, left guard Lane Taylor, center Justin Britt and wide receiver Brandin Cooks on the reserve-COVID-19 list, they ran it down the Chargers’ throat. Burkhead surpassed Ingram’s season-high 85 rushing yards. He also passed him to become the Texans’ leading rusher with 356 yards for the season. Although traded several games ago to the Saints, Ingram entered Sunday as the Texans’ leading rusher with 294 yards.

Burkhead averaged 6.8 yards per run as the Texsans piled up 437 yards of total offense. Mills was sacked only once and hit just twice. The play-action fake and Burkhead deserved respect.

“My running style, I try to be patient,” Burkhead said. “Try to let things develop and hit it when I need to hit it. Try to change it up, of course. You can't just be one-dimensional or guys are going to key on you. I try to mix it up. 

“My dad was a running back growing up. He always preached to me about being versatile. And not always just hitting the hole fast, you've got to be patient at times. The offensive line did a great job allowing us to be patient and letting things develop and really getting through their holes when we needed to.”

Signed to a one-year, $1.487 million contract that includes an additional $500,000 in incentives, Burkhead has outplayed his contract and salvaged the Texans’ languishing running game. He has started since a loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

“He's been Mr. Consistent for us,” Texans coach David Culley said. “He's a guy that's going to get north and south. He knows how to play. He just knows how to play the game. Rex could probably play another position. That's just how instinctive he is as a football player. 

“What happened today is we got him on the perimeter and our receivers and tight ends made some blocks for him. Of course, he made some guys miss and he took it in the end zone just like you would expect him to do with the situation he had in front of him.”

Burkhead converted a key 3rd-and-3 in the fourth quarter, gaining four yards as offensive coordinator Tim Kelly stuck with the hot hand.. On the ensuing play, he had a career-long 36-yard run to set up a touchdown to put the game away.

“There was no hesitation at all with Tim and what we felt like we needed to do in that particular situation,” Culley said. “We’re probably in a situation, too, where if we got down into a 3rd-and-4, we run the ball. If we got down to 4th-and-1 or 4th-and-2, we were probably going to go for it. That's how much confidence I had in what our offense was doing. And it was very, very key in us being successful in everything we did offensively.”

Ultimately, Burkhead’s contributions were a major factor in beating a team favored by 13 points at kickoff. It also earned him a game ball and ended a lot of frustration for a running game largely ineffectual and unproductive all season.

“The offensive line did a tremendous job, you can see it in their eyes,” Burkhead said. “They're focused. They had a great week of preparation. When it came down to those critical moments they were locked in. They were moving guys, making it easy for me to get those yards. Not having to stop and start in the backfield, but really to push that pile forward and to get those first downs when we needed to.

“We've been working our tails off in the run game, trying to improve that area for sure. And we took that as a challenge. The guys up front took it as a challenge, whether it was the linemen, the tight ends, and the coaches of course, as well. We knew as long as we executed, we could have a day like we did today and fortunately for us we did that, and the guys up front did a tremendous job.”

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