Veteran tight end O.J. Howard caught a pair of touchdown passes on accurate spirals from Texans quarterback Davis Mills in the first game of the season.
That represents the zenith so far for the Texans' sputtering offense.
Other than rookie running back Dameon Pierce busting through tackles and scooting into the secondary against the Denver Broncos, the offense has largely struggled.
Heading into Sunday's road game against the Chicago Bears, the 0-1-1 Texans have failed to win a game and Howard has scored the only touchdowns for the offense two games into the season.
The Texans are averaging just 14.5 points per game, ranking 26th in the NFL in scoring offense, 29th in total offense, 24th in passing offense and 27th in rushing offense. In his second NFL season, Mills has gone backwards after a promising ending to his rookie season. He's averaging just 5.6 passing yards per attempt to rank 31st in the league, has been sacked six times and has an 80.8 passer rating.
What is the identity of the Texans' up-and-down offense that has not scored a point in the fourth quarter while being outscored 27-0 in squandering two leads to the Indianapolis Colts and Broncos?
“Ground-and-pound football team who’s going to make the defense have to play the run," Mills said. "But then when they do, let’s take some shots and move the football down the field.”
That would be ideal for an offense that's still finding out what it is. If defenses are forced to respect Pierce as a threat, play-action passes could become more effective. It would take more pressure off of Mills, who has completed 42 of 75 passes (56 percent, 29th ranked) for 417 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“It’s not even the strategy on how we attack the opponent," offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "We’re just trying to do everything we can to stay out of obvious passing situations. You look across the league, that’s the biggest challenge for quarterbacks. You got young quarterbacks, guys like Davis who has only, what like 418 (417) attempts as a pro, compared to guys like have been in the league for a long time.
"Tom Brady has over 10,000 attempts. When you go back and look at the game, and you see there’s incomplete passes, there’s interceptions, there’s plays that aren’t made and why is that? In obvious passing situations, it’s a challenge for any quarterback. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that third down is manageable, if we have a third down at all and give ourselves a better chance of continuing drives and scoring points.”
Mills' split stats through two games indicate a large difference in his performance on critical third downs.
On first down, he has completed 21 of 31 throws (67.74%) for 244 yards and one touchdown for a 102.1 rating
On second down, he's 13 of 23 (56.52%) for 132 yards and one touchdown.
On third down, he's 8 of 19 (42.1%) with no scores.
He's 0 for 2 on fourth down.
The Texans rank 30th in the NFL in third-down conversions with a 25 percent success rate.
Hamilton took accountability for the offense's failure to score more frequently when asked to assess his play-calling.
“Obviously it’s not good enough because we haven’t been able to score enough points," Hamilton said. "We’re looking at all of the above. You always go back and you self-evaluate, that’s what we all do. There are some situations where, of course I would like to have the opportunity to call a different call but I think we’re a few plays away from having the opportunity to feel different after two games.”
Mills has completed 5 of 16 passes (31.25%) in the fourth quarter for 75 yards.
"Those fourth quarter moments late in the game when we’ve got to go down and do something," Mills said. "Those are the make or break between a good team and a bad team. I think our team is really optimistic about where we’re at and we’re ready to go and prove it this weekend.”
In the first quarter, he's completed 8 of 16 passes (50%) for 46 yards.
In the second quarter, he's completed 14 of 21 passes (66.67%) for 145 yards and one touchdown.
In the third quarter, Mills has completed 12 of 17 passes (70.59%) for 125 yards and one touchdown.
In overtime, he's 3 of 5 (60%) for 26 yards and no scores.
“It’s pretty hard to go with a strength," Texans coach Lovie Smith said when asked to evaluate Mills' strengths. "We talked about Davis enough without me going over his strength. What we would like to get accomplished in our passing game is just production. When we have opportunities to catch the ball, we had a few drops.
"Get the running game going, get those one-on-one matchups. That’s what we’re trying to do. How we envision it is that: a running football team will get opportunities to make some big plays in the passing game. We’re going to do that. We’re not getting off with the bus, passing the football. We want to be a running team as far as that's concerned.
Mills hasn't been effective on throws outside the numbers. He's 1 for 10 at sideline passes 10 yards or longer
“I think the sample size is too small to call it a struggle at this point,” Hamilton said.
A punishing fourth-round draft pick from Florida, Pierce rushed for 69 yards on 15 carries against the Broncos as the lone running back to carry the football.
The Texans are going to continue to get Pierce more involved.
“I think when we can just find a way to feature a playmaker like Dameon, he’s shown that he’s explosive and he can create his own yards," Hamilton said. "We’re hoping that the more he plays, he’s going to find different ways to finish runs. Not necessarily run everybody over but it’s good to see that he’s tough, he’s physical and he’s willing to really be aggressive and getting extra yards when he’s about to be tackled.”
The Texans need Pierce, especially with a deep passing game that has yet to materialize. Mills has a speedy wide receiver in Brandin Cooks (4.33 speed) and a big wide receiver in Nico Collins (6-foot-4, 215 pounds). That hasn't led to a lot of long completions. Cooks has the longest catch of the season: 42 yards followed by Collins (29 yards) and Howard (22 yards).
“When you call one of those shot plays where you think you’re going to get a big chunk from it, you obviously want to make the play,” Mills said. “What Pep keeps stressing all the time is we’ve got to make some hard decisions on those plays. If they cover up the deep, let’s check down and move on to the next play because there’s going to be more opportunities to get those plays called throughout the game.”
Mills is taking it on his shoulders to kick-start the offense.
After a low throw that Cooks dropped in the Texans' lone red-zone opportunity against the Broncos, Mills is looking for improvement from himself and the entire offense.
"It starts with me," said the former third-round draft pick from Stanford. "I’ve got to make all the throws, and I know that. Just got to keep pushing for what we’ve been training for. I think we’re ready to perform. We’ve just got to do it.”
The Texans are a few plays away from potentially being 2-0. The other side of that is this is why they've yet to win a game.
“It come down to your best players playing great and playing the best," Cooks said. "I talk about myself when I say that and every man has to look in the mirror and ask themselves that. That’s my message because in the name of the game, in those tight scores or whatever the case might be, who’s going to take you over the edge is typically going to be your best guy. We quite frankly haven’t done that yet and I take some of that. I got that mentality to get back to work and keep pushing to be able to turn those tight scores into wins.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.