Texans try to fill 'void' without rookie Dameon Pierce

Dameon Pierce punished tacklers all season by delivering some of the angriest runs in the league, bulldozing tacklers with his rugged, helmet-first, run-behind-his-shoulder-pads style.

Now that the standout rookie running back is out for at least a week or two with a milder-degree high ankle sprain, the Texans' running game is tasked with trying to approach his steady production. The Texans had become highly dependent on Pierce to provide a physical, dynamic presence.

His job falls to a combination of veterans Rex Burkhead and Dare Ogunbowale as the primary replacements for Pierce, the leading rusher among all rookies.

“Yeah, it’s kind of just fill in as best we can,” said Burkhead, who was tackled for three yards of losses on two carries in a critical red-zone opportunity last Sunday in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys after Pierce injured his left ankle and was taken out of the game. “He’s a tremendous player. If he’s not able to go out there, it’s a big loss for him. We’ve got to do whatever we can to step up and do our jobs.”

Burkhead has rushed for 80 yards on 26 carries, an average of 3.1 yards per run, but 40 of those yards were in a season-opening tie against the Indianapolis Colts.

Ogunbowale has gained 27 yards on eight runs for one touchdown and an average of 3.4 yards per carry.

Pierce rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries against the Cowboys, including one run where he bulldozed safety Malik Hooker by lowering his right shoulder. Pierce has rushed for 939 yards and four touchdowns.

Without Pierce, there’s a potential for a huge drop-off in the Texans’ run-first offense Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“You know what he’s been to our offense this year, he’s one of the best running backs in football,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “There would be a void. When a player can’t go, the void is sealed by others.

“If you talk to most other positions when you lose a great player like that, need more from those positions. Need more from our offensive line, all of those things. We’re working through the game plan right now. We feel like we have a plan, so we’ll go from there.”

A year ago, Burkhead rushed for a career-high 149 yards and two touchdowns in an upset win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

Burkhead, 32, is an experienced, steady pro who has rushed for 1,908 career yards and 17 touchdowns.

He’s not Pierce, though.

“Dameon was one of the best in the league at creating his own yards, so that will be a challenge for us to replace that production,” offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “Nevertheless, both Dare and Rex, they’re pros. They’ve been around for a while, and they understand that it’s their time to step up and make some plays. “I would say probably more so Dare and Rex, when you look at just that maneuverability inside the interior gaps, those guys are going to be able to create their own yards.”

Ogunbowale is shiftier than Burkhead and has 71 career receptions for 549 yards and one touchdown. He has averaged 3.4 yards per carry.

He has 13 catches for 95 yards.

“I feel like I’ll just make plays,” Ogunbowale said. “I’ll just do what I do. It’s an opportunity. You go out there and show what you can do and help your team win. We’re two good running backs. We’re good at everything you’re asked to do as a running back. It’s going to be fun to have two complete backs out there.”

One way the Texans may try to manufacture more rushing yards is with backup quarterback Jeff Driskel zone read plays. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Driskel is a dual-threat quarterback who has excellent speed and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds when he entered the league. He rushed for 36 yards and threw a touchdown against the Cowboys.

“You mentioned Rex, Dare, both of those guys have had success in the league,” Smith said. “There’s a reason why they’ve dressed in every game when they’ve been healthy. So you start with those two options. It’s safe to say those guys are going to be a part of what we do running game-wise, and we’ll look for other options too.”

The Texans cut former Arizona Cardinals running back Eno Benjamin, now claimed off waivers by the New Orleans Saints. Benjamin, as he did when he was cut by the Cardinals, had expressed displeasure with his playing time and was unhappy with his situation.

“Once a player is not on our team, I try not to talk too much about it when they move on,” Smith said. “We just thought we need to go a different direction. Just going to leave it at that. Sometimes divorce is a good thing.”

Not having Pierce, nicknamed Peppy by Burkhead because of his “pep in his step,” is bound to have a negative impact on the offense.

Pierce has gained a combined 1,104 yards from scrimmage and 506 yards after contact to rank fourth in the NFL. He can create his own hole.

“Dameon is a great player,” Texans quarterback Davis mills said. “It’s going to be tough not having him this week, but we have a lot of guys who are talented and ready to step up in that room and make plays. It’s kind of that next man up mentality. We’re ready for anyone to go up and start taking those touches.

"Being with them every day gives confidence. We know exactly what they’re capable of. We know they’re going to go out there and do the right thing. Both of those guys are very talented, and they’re able to win their one-on-ones.”

Mills hasn’t forgotten how Burkhead ran the football against an injury and COVID-depleted Chargers defense a year ago. It was an impressive performance.

“When Rex had the ball, there were some plays where the offensive line opened up holes and allowed him to run through,” Mills said. “Then, there were a couple of plays where Rex put the team on his back, made people miss, popped off some big runs. I know the big run he had there might have been one or two guys in the backfield unblocked and he was able to make both of them miss and run for a big run.”

The Chiefs, headlined by defensive lineman Chris Jones, allow just 106 rushing yards per contest. And not having Pierce will affect this game. It’s just unclear how much it will until they’re on the field.

“He’s one of the best backs in the league,” Burkhead said. “We’re going to do whatever we can do. It’s going to be a collective effort.”

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

Houston Texans v Las Vegas Raiders

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