CHICAGO -- Texans rookie running back Dameon Pierce is developing a reputation for a trademark, smash-mouth running style, a downhill approach built on his ability to break tackles and decisive cuts.
Chicago Bears veteran running back David Montgomery is one of the most elusive runners in the league, creating a path into the open field with his quick, darting moves.
By necessity due to struggling passing games and, by choice, both teams are embracing their respective identities as run-first offenses.
The team that does a better job of running the football and containing the run stands an excellent chance of winning Sunday's game at Soldier Field.
As Texans quarterback Davis Mills characterized the offensive style. It's ground and pound. The tenor of the game is shaping up as a battle in the trenches more so than through the air. It could be a low-scoring affair as both teams are averaging just 14.5 points per game.
Pierce's involvement in the offense is expected to keep increasing one week after rushing for 69 yards on 15 carries in a loss to the Denver Broncos during which he was the only Texans running back to run the football.
"Whichever team can take that pounding the longest, both teams are going to be running teams and whoever can withstand that beating for the longest is going to come out on top," Pierce said Friday. "We've just got to be the tougher team. They've got a good front seven. They know we're going to come run the ball, so I wouldn't be surprised if they stack the box and try to take away some things we do offensively. As an offense, we have to be able to react and use it to our advantage."
A fourth-round draft pick used somewhat sparingly at Florida in a platoon system, Pierce has displayed the ability to make defenders miss, run around them or through them.
"What we saw this past week, I think is what we’ve seen throughout: guy gets the ball, he’s a tough guy to bring down," Texans coach Lovie Smith said. "We as a football team need to finish. I haven’t said that an awful lot to Dameon. He finishes plays. What we want to be, that toughness, extra effort, all those things you talk about. That’s exactly what we see from him every time he gets the ball.”
Pierce wound up playing just 29 percent of the 70 offensive snaps, 20 plays overall, against the Colts in a 20-20 tie to open the season. He rushed for just 33 yards on 11 carries with one catch for six yards and didn't play in overtime as veteran backup Rex Burkhead got stuffed for a loss of two yards on a pivotal 3rd-and-1 leading up to a punt decision that led to the tie. While Burkhead played 71 percent of the snaps, 50 plays overall, he rushed for 40 yards on 14 carries with five catches for 30 yards on eight targets against Indianapolis.
It was a different story altogether against the Broncos as Pierce shouldered the workload and Burkhead had no runs.
The way Pierce gets the most out of every run is a quality the Texans are counting on.
“It’s a mentality," wide receiver Brandin Cooks said. "From the moment he stepped into the building, that’s what he’s all about. Even in practice finishing runs, even when he’s not touched, even when it’s hard out there. It’s a mindset. That fact that it seems like he’s always had that. When you turn on his college film, he was doing it then. It’s built in him for sure.”
Pierce rushed for the most yards against the Broncos by a Texans rookie since 2017, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. With more carries, perhaps he can hit the 100-yard mark.
“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," offensive coordinator Pep 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.”
Pierce beat out veteran running back Marlon Mack, now with the San Francisco 49ers, as the Texans love the Georgia native’s potential as a tackle-breaking, 5-foot-10, 218-pounder who attacks linebackers with his aggressive style.
The Texans’ punishing rookie displayed why he earned a reputation as a hard-nosed back with some wiggle in the open field during the preseason and two games into the regular season.
Pierce rushed for 574 yards and 13 touchdowns last season for the Gators .He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns. As a junior, he rushed for 503 yards and four touchdowns and caught 17 passes for 156 yards and one score.
Pierce has run the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds with a 34 1/2 inch vertical leap and bench pressed 225 pounds 21 times. He rushed for 6,779 yards and scored 92 touchdowns in high school.
Now, he's looking to do even more at this level.
"I'm taking care of my body, the NFL hurts, man," Pierce said with a laugh. "I'm trying to make sure I take care of myself mentally and physically and perform at my best."
Bears standout linebacker Roquan Smith, a former Georgia standout who competed against Pierce in college, is questionable after not practicing all week due to a hip injury.
"I've been playing him since college, I've seen his game grow and how he's become the leader of that defense in Chicago," Pierce said. "He's sideline to sideline. He's a run-stuffer. It's going to be a tight matchup."
The Texans, who have been outscored by a combined margin of 27-0 in the fourth quarter in squandering leads in a tie with the Indianapolis Colts and a seven--point loss to the Denver Broncos, are determined to establish the run.
The Bears came back to earth last week against the Green Bay Packers, losing one week after an upset victory over the San Francisco 49ers in sloppy conditions at Soldier Field.
Quarterback Justin Fields has a lot of arm talent and is mobile, but has completed just 14 of 28 passes for 191 yards as the Bears rarely try to throw the ball.
Montgomery rushed for 122 yards on 15 carries against Green Bay.
Montgomery rushed for 849 yards and seven touchdowns last season after gaining a career-high 1,070 yards with eight touchdown runs two seasons ago when he had an 80-yard touchdown run in a 36-7 blowout victory over the Texans as he rushed for 113 yards on just 11 carries.
“He’s a very elusive runner, very tough runner. We’re going to do everything that we can to make sure we get as many hats on him as we can. Population to the ball. That’s one of the main things we’re focused on is stopping the run.”
Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney has just two catches for four yards on five targets one year removed from a 1,055-yard receiving season. Tight end Cole Kmet has yet to catch a pass under first-year offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
''If our offensive coordinator thinks the plays he's giving me are going to help us win games, that's all I care about,'' Fields told Chicago reporters.
The Bears rushed for 180 yards and averaged 6.7 yards per run against the Packers as Khalil Herbert, Montgomery's backup, rushed for 38 yards on four runs.
"He's probably one of my favorite running backs in the league," Texans rookie safety Jalen Pitre said. "He does a great job of being physical. He's a very tough runner, and I would say a very crafty runner. He has good balance. He's always looking to get that extra yard. I like football players that play that type of way."
The Texans' defense, while ranking ninth in scoring defense, has missed far too many tackles.
"For sure," Pitre said. "Every week, we haven't had a perfect game as in tackling. We've had some missed tackles. Me, personally, I'm looking to improve on that. I try to make the corrections. One missed tackle is too many, honestly."
A former NFL Coach of the Year who coached the Bears to a Super Bowl and went 81-63 during his tenure in Chicago from 2004 to 2012, Smith was fired following a 10-victory season.
Smith will treat this game as a business trip as much as possible, but acknowledged the emotions and good memories.
"I get a chance to have my dream job here based on starting there,'' Smith said. ''A lot of great times, we still have a home there, friends. My wife is from Chicago. All positive, appreciative of everything that happened there during my time there.''
For Smith to get what he wants in his return to Chicago, he'll need his football team to do a few key things: Run the football and stop the run. In that vein, both teams have similar styles and agendas.
"I’m looking at us, I’m going to say, ‘Hey, what do we need to do first?'" Smith said. "We need to stop the run and you make that commitment to it. I’m sure they’ll do the same thing. We understand that, too. We’ve got to be able to run the football. When I talk about running the football, there’s so much more than running the football. We’ve got to be successful running the ball, but we’ve got to open our passing game too."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.