Four Downs: Texans 41, Chargers 29

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What do you do when you’re down entire starting lines on offense and defense due to a COVID-19 outbreak? What do you do when you don’t have Brandin Cooks and your offense is entirely Brandin Cooks?

Well, obviously, you (checks notes) … go beat the hell out of a playoff team? Impressively so? And run better than you have all season? And pass better than you have all season? This is starting to feel suspiciously like a post that was written about another team, but it is, in fact, a post about your Houston Texans.

The Houston Texans came to life because they were built for exactly this sort of scenario. They are the team that buried depth parts on the roster like acorns for the winter. They are the team that decided Rex Burkhead was a worthy use of a roster spot despite him being 31. They are the team that carried Cole Toner on the active roster for weeks at a time despite him not playing beyond special teams. I have personally made fun of them several times this year for not getting younger players on the practice squad and on the field.

But, as dumb as I think carrying low-upside backups is as an operating philosophy, as ridiculous and cornball as Team Team Team and our weekly culture talks are, this is exactly the situation where that depth pays off. Playing in a pandemic, where both sides have massive losses, and you’re the team with less gaping holes.

And, honestly, hopefully the Texans learn some lessons from this. Because when your offensive line executes (Culley talk) as poorly as it has all season, many of the starters are gone, and all of the sudden you run like the Texans did today — that should be a wakeup call about who exactly the depth actually is.

1) Davis Mills’ best game of his career to date

I’ve been pretty skeptical about Davis Mills being good this year, but from the beginning I knew that this would be a process. The funny thing about processes is that they can take leaps quickly. While this came in the midst of the Texans actually running well, came against a defense that was missing important starters, and while there still weren’t many deep throws, this was the best game that Mills has played to date. Let’s start with the touchdown throw to Conley:

Here’s what I was excited about with this play: It felt like an overrule of what the offense traditionally has been, and that was echoed in post-game comments by both Chris Conley and Mills. It came after the Texans started running the ball and not using timeouts, and where it felt like they were almost happy to attempt a long field goal to take a one-point lead. (As they had, actually, the drive before.) Instead they went for the jugular, and the throw had to be on the money, and it was:

(Please ignore the fact that I left audio on for that during an SNF commercial.) These are the kind of throws that Mills is going to have to hit with ease if he wants to be a long-term starter in this league. He doesn’t have to hit a ton of them to be an Andy Dalton sort of player, but he has to find some of them. This was a big step and came on the heels of another dart earlier in the drive, his other long pass that was completed:

The other section of improvement from Mills has come pre-snap, where he’s become a lot smarter about not dialing in on his receivers based on coverages he’s seen. That was something he specifically talked about in his post-game presser:

These are encouraging signs that Mills is growing as a player. I was never one who urged a lot of doom and gloom about the pick when it happened, but I definitely have thought at times this year that Mills didn’t look like he belonged on the field. Since he’s come back, he’s been much better on third down and has limited his turnover rate. I think there’s a lot of ballgame(s) left, and I don’t expect him to be this good all the time. I still don’t think he’s hit throws against blitzes that I want to see. But it’s impossible to watch this and think that he hasn’t markedly improved from the beginning of the year. And there’s almost no way he won’t be starting games for this team next year the way things are trending.

2) The Rex Burkhead career game

The only player with more rushing yards over expected in Week 16 than Rex Burkhead was Rashaad Penny. I can’t believe I’m typing these words, and can’t believe they are real, but this is where we’re at as a society now. We must acknowledge the Rexaissance.

David Johnson? Not playing. The Chargers run defense? Look, it’s not been good this year. They’re 31st in the NFL by DVOA. But the Texans played No. 32 in rush defense DVOA — the Jets — and didn’t do crap against them. So let’s celebrate the victories. I think the Texans offensive line pushed this front around for most of the day, and I think Burkhead got some extra yardage when Chargers spun out of their gaps because he’s a smart enough runner to take advantage of that.

This was the first time the Texans have had a 100-yard rusher since Week 16 of the 2020 season — almost a full calendar year — despite the fact that it is inextricably linked to their team’s identity. Here’s what I’m interested in: Who just lost a job? Because when David Culley talked about the reserves, he didn’t sound like a man interested in playing politics:

Tytus Howard needs to play tackle. But your Lane Taylors and Justin McCrays and Justin Britts? If they can’t get you a 100-yard rusher until Game 15, how much have they helped? Let’s see some more Cole Toner and Jimmy Morrissey. And honestly given how the roster has been constructed — I know they can’t have everyone active every game — but I’m a little surprised by how much of a given some of these roster spots actually have been so far. The only player who has received a punishment benching is Max Scharping. Let’s spend the next two weeks finding out if there are any Team Team Team players here who can actually get movement up front.

3) The front seven, to their credit, did not get pushed around by the Chargers front despite massive losses

The only two players who have been full-time rotation guys for the Texans defensive line before last week and also played heavily on Sunday were Ross Blacklock and DeMarcus Walker. They were joined by guys like Michael Dwumfour, Demone Harris, and Xavier Williams — Williams was signed off the street literally this week.

That’s a dangerous situation for any team — while you don’t need dominant line play in the NFL to win, if you get too thin there, can’t run rotations, and get outclassed, it’s extremely easy to lose. The Texans weren’t outclassed. Dwumfour, in my opinion, had one of the most impactful plays of the game:

They also managed to hold the Chargers to just 89 rushing yards and 4.2 per carry. There was no Austin Ekeler, yes, but Justin Jackson is pretty splashy and they were able to keep him from dominating the game. Walker even stripped him on the run-by in what became another huge play for the Texans:

I can’t tell you Houston’s defense was downright good, given that they allowed 7.3 yards a play, but they did get three turnovers against one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL — Jonathan Owens’ pick being a key one whereas Tavierre Thomas’ pick-six was just window dressing on a game that was already over.

I didn’t come away from the game with any new insights about Houston’s defense but it says a lot that they were able to hang on and not get absolutely bullied at such a massive deficit. In a season like this, that can be a win.

4) Brevin Jordan became the go-to guy on third down

Brevin Jordan won three crucial third-down plays in the second half, the most impressive of which to me was this one:

Jordan gets to the horizontal part of his route here, and he leaves his guy — who had early leverage — in the dust as the defender falls down. Then there was the 27-yarder that was much-more celebrated because Jordan was able to make some misses happen in the open field:

I thought that was a well-placed ball from Mills as well with the angle Jordan gave him. He had to lead him to the sideline, and that’s the kind of throw that has to be located perfectly. It was.

The Texans really spread the ball around in a big way without Brandin Cooks, and I think the fact that they were as successful at it as they were speaks loudly to Mills’ development, but I was most excited to see how involved Jordan was in it. He has been tangentially involved with touchdown catches and with certain packages, but seeing him as the focal point on a few key third-down throws was a big step for me. We’ve had flashes like this before with guys like Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas, and it was just four targets, but the importance of those particular targets feels promising. Just that this is the guy that they trust to win the ball even when he’s covered says quite a bit — because a lot of their other third-down catches in this game were open underneath zone holes.

This was the best game Tim Kelly has called since the Lions game in Thanksgiving 2020. It was not entirely without flaws, but there was a notable lack of conservatism. Maybe some of that is just Mills growing up, as well. But it’s rare that I feel like the Texans are actively hunting mismatches so much as just running the same few plays, and this felt like an inspired effort.

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