Texans' Dameon Pierce on C.J. Stroud: 'Sky is the limit for C.J.'

As a rookie, Dameon Pierce hit the ground running.

Once he emerged as the Texans’ featured running back and the centerpiece of a run-first offense, he didn’t stop until an ankle injury interrupted a potential Pro Bowl and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year season.

One year later, Pierce is even more explosive and he has gained the invaluable perspective of what it takes to succeed in the NFL in part from mentoring he received as a rookie from veteran running back Rex Burkhead.

And the Pro Bowl alternate sees parallels with his continued growth as a player during the early stages of Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud. Between the first preseason game, a rough outing where he was intercepted once against the New England Patriots, to an encouraging second game against the Miami Dolphins where he displayed accuracy and poise, Stroud has made improvements.

“That’s the difference between Week 1 and now, he’s had the time to call that in a game, see how that feels under the lights, under the cameras, to the fans, to a lot of situations,” Pierce said heading into the Texans’ final preseason game Sunday night against the New Orleans Saints at the Caesars Superdome. “So, that makes practice that much easier. When Week 2 came, more calm, more poised, making plays, being his natural self, being the C.J. we want him to be. He works hard. He takes great notes, very intent in meetings.

“The sky is the limit for C.J. He’s the only person who can get in his way and I don’t see him getting in his way anytime soon. He’s a great kid. He learns from all the quarterbacks in the room. He takes it very well, similar to me last year with Rex. Always talking, always getting better, always improving.”

Although listed at 5-foot-10, 218 pounds, Pierce is noticeably leaner and more chiseled than his first NFL season after an offseason devoted to training with Justin Allen. And he looks even faster on the field than he did as a rookie before he got hurt against the Dallas Cowboys and was placed on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.

As a rookie, Pierce rushed for 939 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games after being drafted in the fourth round out of Florida. Although he missed four games, Pierce caught 30 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown on 39 targets.

Pierce punished tacklers with his bruising running style. He was equally elusive, too, bolting away from pursuit and displaying a wiggle in the open field.

These preseason games are pivotal, Pierce believes, in getting ready for the first game of the season against the Baltimore Ravens.

“It takes a few games to really mesh well,” Pierce said. “In camp, we’ve been going against each other. Just going out against another color, a different scheme, a different team, it gives a lot of opportunities to the younger guys. We really want to implement the scheme and mesh well with the offensive line, with C.J., with his timing, with me getting my timing right with my line.”

Stroud completed 2 of 4 passes for 13 yards with one interception against the Patriots.

Against the Dolphins, he completed 7 of 12 passes for 60 yards.

He’s slated to play a few series against the Saints, like the other starters.

“That’s kind of like me last year, my first preseason game,” Pierce said. “As you can see when he played the Patriots, it was kind of new to him, kind of fast. Week 2, he looked like a completely different player. I expect him to keep growing in that area and keep making strides and be one of the premier playmakers on this team.”

While the Texans’ featured running back as the headliner 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.”

As successful as Pierce was last season as the only consistently dangerous aspect of an 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 Stroud.

“I’m trying to play like a vet,” Pierce said. “Rex played 10 years. ‘How did you get to 10? How did you get to 5? Bro, the sooner I realized that not every play is going to be a touchdown, take the yards that they give you and don’t be disappointed in two or three yard runs. They add up and become the 50-yarder or 60-yarder. Just staying disciplined and consistent in that aspect of my game. Take care of my body.”

Even though this game doesn’t count and the Saints are slated to rest their starters, Pierce sees the value of another game experience.

“They can be very beneficial for me,” Pierce said. “I’m a second-year player. I know I probably act and carry myself like an older player, but it’s still Year 2 for me. I have a lot of room to grow and more football to play, a lot more experience to gain. The preseason is a perfect place for that in a controlled environment. Just working on my techniques and working on my fundamentals, getting that chemistry with my offensive line. These two weeks are going to be critical leading up to Baltimore.”

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 was 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 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.

“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 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.”

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 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, anddialed 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.”

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

Miami Dolphins v Houston Texans

Photo: Logan Riely / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

Texans' rookie Will Anderson Jr. off to fast start

Will Anderson Jr. bolted out of his stance, his cleats moving in rapid-fire fashion as a man unchallenged and undaunted as he easily penetrated the Miami Dolphins’ backfield.

In a blur of movement, all hands, feet and shoulder pads, the Texans’ rookie defensive end roughly bench pressed helpless Miami Dolphins running back Salvon Ahmed off his feet as he as launched into the air and sent flailing to the ground. That crushing blow didn’t interrupt Anderson on his intended path: a coveted shot on quarterback Skylar Thompson.

Once Anderson gained position, he was all over Thompson for a sack and forced fumble ultimately recovered by the quarterback.

Anderson smiled when asked what runs through his mind when he sees a mismatch like that with a smaller running back tasked with slowing him down.

“Hey, look they called the play, they knew what was going to happen,” Anderson said after his first preseason game at NRG Stadium. “I’m doing my job and doing what my coaches want me to do.”

That isn’t up for debate.

Anderson has earned heavy praise from the coaching staff and general manager Nick Caserio ever since they drafted him third overall after a blockbuster trade with the Arizona Cardinals. Although the primary focus of the Texans’ rookie class has been on starting quarterback C.J. Stroud, Anderson has arguably been just as or even more impressive.

“Will, I thought he did a really good job of disrupting,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “Playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, that’s what we want from our defensive end. It’s good to see Will show that. That’s what we know Will can do.

“It was fun to see him make a play. It was fun to see the energy after he made a play. And Will has shown, just as C.J., both guys have shown [drive] to get better each and every week, and I’m proud of where they are.”

It was another snapshot of why the Texans’ first-round draft pick and starting defensive end is already being discussed as a prime candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. His reaction to the play was his typical low-key reply to success.

“It was fun, but it goes back to being disciplined and doing what my coaches tell me to do: get off the ball, take my two steps and climb up the field and be physical,” Anderson said. “That’s one of the biggest things coach (Ryans) stresses. As long as you’re being physical and being fast, that’s what he looks for.

“There’s always room for improvement, always ways to make a better play. We’ve got to get back to the drawing board and get better as a defense.”

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Anderson isn’t wrong. The defense obviously struggled, especially against the run, during the 28-3 loss to the Dolphins. There’s work to be done, but Anderson provides a potential solution to the problem. If anything, his teammates need to pick up their respective games to match what he’s doing.

“It’s really no I in team, it’s all of us,” Anderson said. “We want to be a great team, a playoff team. We all have to do a better job. It’s setting the edge. It’s all of us as a defensive line. We’re going back to the drawing board and get this corrected. As a kid getting to this level, you don’t take it for granted. It can be taken away from you at any moment.

“I think that’s what defense is all about. Everybody having energy, everybody jumping up and down. We all feed off of each other. When one person makes a big play, we all feed off it and it helps us gain more momentum and keeps us rolling.”

A former consensus All-American, Bronko Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik, Lott trophy and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and national champion at Alabama as one of the most highly recognized defensive players in Crimson Tide history, Anderson has galvanized the defense with his relentless style.

Anderson Jr. plays the game with a dynamic style, chasing down quarterbacks and running backs with skill and determination.

“Will comes in to work every day angry,” Texans Pro Bowl middle linebacker Denzel Perryman said. “,I can see him doing that every play, every day. It was an amazing play, to be honest with you.”

Anderson’s progress has been noticed by analytics sites, too.

He’s the highest rated defensive rookie with a 92.4 Pro Football Focus grade, a point higher than Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Jalen Carter.

“I would say that play is indicative of his progression in the system in terms of attacking and getting off the ball,” Texans defensive coordinator Matt Burke said. “I think he showed a leap in that where there was a little, a slight level of hesitation and tentativeness in the first game. I think he took most of that out of his game last week, so it was good to see him sort of make those steps and progress. I think it’s continued into practice, and I feel like he’s starting to level up a little bit. Hopefully, continues on that trend.”

The way that Anderson has dominated and flashed his skill, energy and power is no surprise, including linebacker Christian Harris, his former college teammate.

“It’s pretty exciting to see, for sure,” Harris said. “It’s something I saw a lot at ‘Bama. It wasn’t anything new to me to see him make a play like that.”

At 6-foot-3, 243 pounds, Anderson has a rare combination of speed, strength and a full repertoire of pass rushing moves. He has a toolbox of strategies for every block thrown his way and a plan to win.

He’s a craftsman who believes strongly in pass rushing as a form of art.

“They sleep on my power,” Anderson said. “They see me and say ‘Oh, he’s probably just a speed guy’ and then ‘Boom,’ I hit them with power to counter. It’s good having that speed and power because a lot of people wouldn’t think my body type would have that.

“My first step, my lunge, is one of the biggest things my coaches talk about. Just having that first step and getting my footwork right, one, two, down, close. I just want to be precise with my details.”

Anderson hasn’t had much success against Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the Texans’ $75 million man. However, it’s a daily battle and the rookie has earned the respect of the top pass protector in the NFL.

“Dog, for sure,” Tunsil said. “Fun matchup. He’s going to be great. He has a motor. He has all the tools. As soon as he puts it all together, he’s going to be a dominant force in the league.”

At Alabama, Anderson piled up 204 career tackles, 58 1/2 tackles for losses, 34 1/2 sacks and one interception.

He’s eyeing a similar success track in the NFL. How does he reach that goal? It’s simple: by perfecting his craft.

“The coaches really emphasize hand placement,” Anderson said. “Just making sure your hands are right on the breastplate of the tackle, but not putting your hands too high where he can get underneath you. Those are things you watch on film and when you come back you get better.”

The Texans landed their highest-graded pass rusher and overall prospect regardless of position in the draft in Anderson.

The Texans, after drafting Stroud second overall, traded with the Cardinals to draft Anderson third overall. The Texans exchanged 12th overall and 33rd overall selections, their own 2024 first-round and third-round picks, and the Cardinals also sent their 105th overall pick.

And Anderson, signed to a four-year, fully guaranteed $35.212 million contract that includes a fifth-year club option and a $22.609 million signing bonus, is giving the Texans zero regrets about their hefty investment. He’s been as advertised.

“Will has been great throughout camp,” Ryans said. “One thing about Will, he’s been the same guy who we thought we were getting when we drafted him, right? He’s been on it every single day. When it comes to just the effort, the tenacity that he plays with, the energy, everything about him, he’s been that and more.

“Will has gotten better each and every day. He takes coaching really well. Will has done a great job of absorbing coaching and being able to take it to the field and apply it. It’s been cool to watch.”

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

Miami Dolphins v Houston Texans

Photo: Logan Riely / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

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