Texans' Dameon Pierce sets Pro Bowl goal

Dameon Pierce punished tacklers with his bruising running style as an NFL rookie. He was equally elusive, too, bolting away from pursuit and displaying a wiggle in the open field that belied his stocky frame.

Although listed at 5-foot-10, 218 pounds, Pierce is noticeably leaner and more chiseled than his first NFL season. And he looks even more explosive on the field than he did as a rookie when he emerged as an early candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year before an ankle injury against the Dallas Cowboys ended his season prematurely.

While the Texans’ featured running back as the centerpiece of an offense designed by offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik has already set his sights on the 1,000-yard season that narrowly eluded him last season, he has set his ambitions on another goal. He wants to be voted into the Pro Bowl after being an alternate last season.

“Of course, the Pro Bowl is something that I feel like every player looks forward to,” Pierce said. “Just getting that recognition from your peers around the league and guys you played against, and seeing the guys you’ve played this game with acknowledge you in that way is a bigger honor than somebody on Twitter: ‘Oh, I think he’s a top running back in the league,’ or, ‘He’s top 10 in this and that.’

“I feel like the [respect] from the guy that you actually play against, the guy that’s in the league, the guy that’s in the same shoes as you are, that hits way different than anybody. I think the only person that would probably top it is hearing my mom saying that I’m the best.”

Now, Pierce is eager to ply his trade and make his preseason debut Saturday night against the Miami Dolphins at NRG Stadium. Following a pair of joint practices against them and some impressive runs, Pierce said he’s ready to go after being held out of the preseason opener against the New England Patriots. His role is undetermined.

“I have no clue,” Pierce said. “I’m going to be live, though.”

As successful as Pierce was last season as the only consistently dangerous aspect of a predictable offense designed by former offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, he’s determined to improve.

How Pierce fares will largely determine the success of the Texans’ overhauled offense and make life easier for rookie quarterback and projected starter C.J. Stroud.

And Pierce is making subtle improvements, all with the encouragement and tough love coaching of running backs coach Danny Barrett.

“I feel good, coach D.B. he’s still on me, but I can tell that by the way he’s on me that I’m growing, because he’s not repeating the same thing twice, I’m trying not to make the same mistake twice,” Pierce said. “We’re working on the little things to make me a great player and to make me a better teammate. And ultimately take some of that pressure off of C.J. in the huddle, take some of that pressure of C.J. in the game, because the better we are as an offense, the less pressure that’s going to be on him. I just feel better, man. I feel more in shape, feel better mentally, feel sharper, and I’m ready to have a good season.”

Inside a sweltering gym in July, Pierce is pouring sweat as droplets fly off of him while in constant motion. Pierce is a study in determination as he runs with a football, changing directions explosively in tight spaces across the artificial turf as he cuts around orange cones.

It’s the NFL offseason, but it’s not vacation time for Pierce as he worked overtime with private trainer Justin Allen at All-En Sports Performance. Between the elevated temperatures, an intentionally hot environment, and the series of football drills, high-intensity training workouts and weight lifting and stricter nutrition habits, the Texans Pro Bowl alternate running back transformed his body.

Although listed at 5-foot-10, 218 pounds, Pierce is noticeably leaner and more chiseled than his first NFL season. And he looks even more explosive on the field than he did as a rookie when he emerged as an early candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year before an ankle injury against the Dallas Cowboys ended his season prematurely.

“Yeah, I’ve been trying to get that baby fat off me, man. You know what I’m saying?” said Pierce, who credited his work with Allen and Texans nutritionist Ladd Harris. “It was really my diet, you know. Just leaning out and getting that body fat percentage down. You know Ladd and our nutritionist, they were really happy about that. I’m trying to get through some holes man. I’m trying to get through there.”

“It was a hot gym – there was no AC in there. We’ve just got fans blowing in there. So, I definitely got some extra body fat off in there. J. Allen, that’s my guy, we’re locked in, so we fine-tune my work outs for me. It’s hot in there. We burn off some fat, man.”

Pierce ran with the power of a sledgehammer as a rookie, bulldozing linebackers at the point of impact and dashing away from pursuit with uncommon speed.

Pierce embarrassed the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense with an epic, tackle-breaking display that earned him the Angriest Run of the Year.

And Pierce endeared himself to his blockers with his hard-nosed running style and infectious personality. He set himself apart with his downhill approach to the game and zest for punishing defenders.

“Man, we love Dameon,” right tackle Tytus Howard said. “He’s one of the most energetic guys on the team. We love blocking for him and we know that all we’ve got to do is get our hats on guys and he’ll handle the rest.

“He’s explosive, he’s fast, strong. He’s one of those backs that can do it all, so we’re hoping to get him to be one of the best running backs in the league this year. We know he can do that.”

His helmet-first mentality was brutal for defensive players to deal with, leaving a pile of fallen players in his wake.

“I don’t like to take it, man,” Pierce said of his approach to football. “That’s about as simple as I can get. I don’t like to take contact. I’d rather be the one delivering the blow.”

And now the Texans’ star running back, a Pro Bowl alternate last season, is envisioning an even more dynamic encore as he prepares for his second NFL season.

The reasons why include his diligence this offseason and the arrival of offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, who’s installing the San Francisco 49ers’ “running back friendly” system steeped in West Coast offensive principles that showcased the versatility and talents of running back Christian McCaffrey.

“Oh, the more ways I can get the ball, the better, baby,” Pierce said. “I love that, I love that But I’ve got a lot of great guys to look at. Most recently, probably Christian McCaffrey. He thrived last year in the league, in his offense he’s just getting out of the backfield, getting in the flat, catching hitches or whatever the case may be. There’s multiple ways to get a running back the ball.”

As a rookie, Pierce rushed for 939 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games after being drafted in the fourth round out of Florida. Before a high ankle sprain ended his season with four games left, Pierce caught 30 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown on 39 targets.

What does he do for an encore? He has set his sights on the 1,000-yard milestone.

“It’s going to look a lot better than last year,” Pierce said. “Definitely cap 1,000 yards. That’s a goal I have for myself. That’s what I expect from me, so I definitely want to cap 1,000. ‘Slow’ [Slowik] expects that. Everybody around me expects that and I’m going to try everything in my power to get that.”

And McCaffrey, playing in a system he “exemplifies,” in Pierce’s opinion, piled up 746 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 11 games after being acquired in a trade from the Carolina Panthers. He also caught 52 passes for 464 yards and four touchdowns on 65 targets.

Perhaps Slowik’s offense is tailored just as perfectly for Pierce’s skills, which go beyond human battering ram and also qualify him as a home run threat with the speed to take it the distance.

“I’d still say it’s running back friendly,” Pierce said. “That’s one thing that excites me. We run the ball. I love that. I like the dynamic that coach Slo brings. He likes to attack the defense in every way possible.

“If he sees a weakness, he’s going to pull that thread until the whole ball of yarn comes loose. He’s going to pick at the defense, he’s going to put the defense in positions where they have to think, and not where they can react. .. I love my fit in this offense. Like a jig-saw puzzle.”

Pierce emerged as the Texans’ most dangerous offensive player last season and should be the centerpiece of the the offense again. The architect of the 49ers’ top-ranked defense last season, new coach DeMeco Ryans is expected to emphasize a strong running game on offense to establish an aggressive, productive style.

Pierce embodies the kind of physical, tough approach that new coach DeMeco Ryans is looking for on both sides of the football.

Ryans loves Pierce’s work ethic and passion for football.

“Yeah, Dameon has been having a really great offseason,” Ryans said. “He looks great, in shape, and every time he touches the ball, you see the speed, you see the physicality. I know we don’t have pads on, but you can see the mindset that Dameon runs with, and I love that mindset. That’s what we’re going to need, and I’m encouraged to see his progress. He’s doing an excellent job, and I think I love Dameon just because his personality is great.

“He brings a lot of energy each and every day, always has a smile on his face, always excited, and always enthusiastic about practice, so he has that contagious energy that I love to be around. For us to be a good offense, we have to have Dameon at his A-game, and for Dameon to have his A-game, our offensive line has to be on their game, so it’s all a matter of guys working in sync, working in conjunction.”

Pierce is ultra-focused, dialed in on improvement.

The depressed running back market, even for elite backs like the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley, the Indianapolis Colts’ Jonathan Taylor and the Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh Jacobs, that’s not what Pierce is thinking about. He’s also not eligible for an extension until after his third NFL season.

“I feel like when it’s my time, I feel like a lot of that is dependent on the guy,” Pierce said. “A lot of guys are starting to base that off of what they do on the field. It’s more than that when it comes to the owner looking at this guy, like, ‘How did this guy impact our organization, how does this guy impact our locker room?’ The player on the field is obvious, but like I said, I just try to focus on being the best me. I come in here every day and try to uplift everybody. And in the future, my contract will reflect what I’ve done for this team and what I mean to this team.”

After being drafted in the fourth round, Pierce signed a four-year, $4.5 million contract. His agent, Elton Patterson, negotiated $25,000 more at his slot than the precedent that was in place. That personal example is encouraging to Pierce.

“I wouldn’t say devalued, but once you set a market for something, everybody is going to follow,” Pierce said. “Kind of like what happened when I came in. When I got my rookie contract and my four-year contract, and everybody’s trying to say, ‘Hey, man, he got this,’ and then everybody’s trying to bump it up. So, that’s just the NFL, it’s the business side. They’ve got their own opinions and ‘have their guys working on that,’ or whatever.”

So, worrying about the future that’s not something Pierce is going to waste time on. His future contract negotiations will arrive when they arrive and he’s not going to stress out about

“I can control what I can control,” Pierce said. “Who knows, when it comes my time, the running back market might be the highest it’s ever been like houses in 2008. It’s time to buy a running back. Everyone will be trying to buy a running back; you know what I’m saying when my time comes? All I can do is play ball and make my value as high as I can with my play on the field and what I do around the stadium and what I do in the building.”

What Pierce accomplished last year wasn’t done in a vacuum. He rushed for 139 yards in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in a nationally televised Thursday night game. In his final game of the season before he injured his ankle, Pierce rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in a 27-23 road loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

As a member of the Cowboys at the time, veteran tight end Dalton Schultz took notice of Pierce’s competitiveness.

“That kid can run hard,” Schultz said. “I remember coming out of the game last year I was like, ‘Damn, who is this No. 31 kid, he is just gashing us.’ He is a great player, full of energy, ball of energy and I asked him ‘What year is this for you?’ Because he carries himself like a vet.

“I was just listening to a kid who is a second year in the league guy and kind of surprises me a bit because he definitely gives off that veteran established leadership style. Having him kind of be at the head of the running back room I think is big time heading forward.”

The knowledge Pierce is acquiring to boost his game is beneficial. The respect he’s earning is significant to him.

“That’s one of the things that I really, really, really try to do is impress the vets wherever I go because I know they know what it takes to stay in this league and sustain in this league at a high level,” Pierce said. “Anytime a vet is saying good things about a young guy such as myself, that just gives me confidence. It kind of reassures me that I’m doing the right thing, I’m handling it the right way and that I’m doing vet-like things that are going to contribute later in my career.”

One year into his NFL career, Pierce hasn’t gotten away from his country boy roots in Bainbridge, Georgia. Pierce remains grounded.

“Just being humble, that’s really one of the main ones that got me as far as I am today, just being humble, patient,” Pierce said. “As hard as it is to be patient, just patience and just trusting in yourself because, at the end of the day, if you’re working hard and you’re putting the work in, you know what you’re doing. So really just finding that inner peace within yourself knowing that you’re doing everything you can to be the best, because at that point you don’t have anybody to blame but yourself.

“If I was coming out here going out half-speed, you know, I’m hurting myself and then I’m hurting my team ultimately, so the best way to look at that is, ‘How good can I be for my team?’ And then when they see me being my best for them, it’s going to feed off on them, and it’s just going to be infectious.”

NOTES: After two days of joint practice sessions that didn’t include many altercations or injuries with the exception of Dolphins veteran left tackle Terron Armstead being carted off with a right leg injury, Texans coach DeMeco Ryans was pleased with the work of his team.

“I thought these past few days were very productive,” Ryans said. “I think yesterday was good and we came back today and had another really good day of practice, and it went really well to me. We got really good looks, offensively and defensively, against different schemes, different players and we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish out of it.”

Now, Ryans is set for his first game as a head coach at NRG Stadium. He was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Texans and an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“I’m just excited for all our fans just to show up, show out, be loud for us even though it’s a preseason game,” Ryans said. “It definitely means a lot to our players when we see the stands packed and people are there encouraging us, cheering for us. It means a lot to our players, so that’s my message to the fans, please show up and support us.” ..

Wide receiver Nico Collins is projected as the top downfield target on the roster.

He beat Dolphins cornerback Noah Igninoghene for a long sideline catch, and he later beat cornerback Eli Apple for a touchdown.

“Nico is showing he’s a big-play threat,” Ryans said. “He’s made a lot of big-time plays down the field. We’re expecting him to do the same things when it comes to the games.” ...

The Texans, having lost starting center Scott Quessenberry to a torn ACL and MCL, are having some issues with their interior offensive line. Rookie Juice Scruggs is the new starting center, and Kenyon Green is coming off an up-and-down rookie season at left guard.

The Dolphins, at times, made it difficult to run plays due to pressure up the middle from Raekwon Davis.

“Interior pressure stops up all offenses,” Ryans said. “That’s why you have to be solid in the middle. The defense wants to threaten the pocket as quickly as possible. We have to be really good in the center of our offense.”

Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud was constantly under duress against the New England Patriots. He was sacked once and intercepted once with Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Tytus Howard (broken hand in two places) not playing..

“Our offensive line is still working through things,” Ryans said. “We still have things to improve. That’s what training camp’s all about, and guys are heading in the right direction. It’ll continue to be a process.” ...

Several Texans players didn’t practice, including linebacker Blake Cashman. Cashman strained his hamstring and the injury is considered ‘relatively minor,’ according to a league source. Other players who didn’t practice include defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, linebacker Christian Kirksey (hamstring), tight end Brevin Jordan (hamstring), safety Brandon Hill (hamstring), defensive tackle Thomas Booker (wrist), offensive tackle Tytus Howard (hand surgery), quarterback Case Keenum (soft tissue leg injury), wide receiver Jared Wayne (strained hamstring) and defensive end Jerry Hughes (rest day) ...

The Texan are advising fans to arrive early for the preseason game due to construction and road closures Friday and Saturday at the I-59 and I-610 interchange. Texans team president Greg Grissom said the team will be providing information electronically to aid the process

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

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