DENVER – Texans quarterback Davis Mills delivered a fast play-action fake before firing the football toward open veteran wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the end zone.
The errant throw was a bit too low and the timing was off as he didn’t deliver the most catchable pass. Normally sure-handed and reliable, Cooks was unable to haul in the pass and the red-zone opportunity was squandered with another incompletion and mistimed connection on the following play.
“I just got to make the play,” Cooks said of the dropped pass.
Instead of capitalizing with a touchdown and possibly putting a reeling Denver Broncos team away after middle linebacker Christian Kirksey intercepted Russell Wilson, the Texans were forced to settle for a third field goal from kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn.
“We had a play formed on the backside, and I didn’t end up seeing where the ball ended up,” Mills said. “Probably potentially could have scored there. I guess I got to give him a better ball on that one. That’s one of the opportunities that we missed and defense gets a big takeaway. We got to go down there and get a touchdown and so then it’s a different game.”
The missed connection was emblematic of the issues that keep holding back the offense, a sputtering outfit that was the primary reason why the Texans lost 16-9 Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High. The Texans, simply, can’t finish and Mills has not built on the strong finish to his encouraging rookie season.
“It is one of those things, great teams are able to find a way to win those close games, and we just didn’t do that,” Cooks said.
The Texans (0-1-1) have been outscored 27-0 in the fourth quarter against the Broncos and Indianapolis Colts, blowing leads, and should be 2-0 if the offense and Mills had performed better. The defense has been playing winning football, including containing Wilson on Sunday.
“Before you can win football games, you have to stop losing them,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “Too many penalties today. There are some things that we should be able to take control. We had an opportunity to do well. I think our guys played hard, but offensively never really got things going.
“The guys played hard for the most part throughout. They didn’t play well enough, kind of simple as that. We still see signs. We stalled. We’re not there yet. It’s kind of simply that. We show flashes of what we can be.”
Ultimately, the lost potential touchdown, settling for another field goal, spelled the difference in the game as Wilson heated up in the fourth quarter on 5 of 8 passing for 103 yards and a game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Eric Saubert who created one step behind tight coverage from Kirksey.
“He made a good play,” Kirksey said. “I thought I had good coverage. I think he caught it one-handed. It was a great pass from Russell and a great catch by him. You try your best to have tight coverage, but it was an outstanding catch by him.”
A 9-6 lead after the Cooks drop-Mills misfire didn’t prove to be enough. It wasn’t the same type of collapse as the Colts coming back from a 20-3 deficit, but there were parallels.
“We dropped the ball,” Smith said. “We have a pretty good play call we just weren’t able to come up with the catch. Those things happen.”
Although the Texans’ running game improved as rookie Dameon Pierce rushed for 69 yards on 15 carries, it wasn’t a sustained effort as there were far too many other issues with the offense.
The Texans went 0 for 1 in their lone trip to the red zone. They had just 15 first downs and 234 yards of net offense. They were 2 for 13 on third down.
“It’s not ever going to be perfect, but being able to be dialed in and be on the same page, even in those instances where you know, we don’t necessarily practice little details, is that that’s what it’s all about in the passing game,” Cooks said. “No doubt.”
And Mills completed just 19 of 38 passes for 177 yards. The Texans also committed eight penalties for 94 yards. Mills was also sacked three times and hit six times overall as defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones had two sacks and one forced fumble while Randy Gregory had one sack and three quarterback hits.
“You just have to finish, just have to go out and fix our mistakes, it’s as simple as that,” Texans left offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil said. “Just have to get better at finishing games and once we do that, we’ll be a great team.”
Through two games, Mills has completed a combined 5 of 16 passes for 75 yards in the fourth quarter. He was 5 for 12 for 75 yards in the fourth quarter at Denver with a pair of sacks and fumbles, both recovered by right offensive guard A.J. Cann.
“We need more from Davis but it starts up front first,” Smith said. “Davis having more time, the run game being a little more productive, opening up some of the passing lanes. It’s all of the above. I understand when we’ve won the game, we’re going to give the quarterback a pat on the back but there’s so much more than just Davis Mills. Yes. Davis needs to get better like we all need to.”
On the Texans’ final two drives, down a touchdown, Mills’ inaccuracy and lack of timing were on display. He went 1 for 3 for minus-1 yard.
“That’s what we always talk about in our quarterback room on the team,” Mills said. “Our job is to stay close the whole game then we got to win the game in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line. It was a tough one today, you’ve just got to go out there and make opportunities.”
“It’s tough. Our whole team feels that we’re close. Our best football is ahead of us. We played a good football team out there and we were with them the whole game. We’ve just got to take advantage of those opportunities that are there.”
There was a key breakdown in pass coverage on 3rd-and-16 when Wilson lobbed a 35-yard pass behind rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr down to the Texans’ 33-yard line. Three plays later, Saubert beat Kirksey for the touchdown. The football game was effectively over.
“That wasn’t covered as well as we needed it to,” Smith said. “You know exactly what happened. We had played coverage the way we should and a little bit of a breakdown, and we paid for it.”
It was a crucial play that set the stage for the Broncos’ comeback victory.
“They just had a good play call,” Stingley said. “That’s it.”
Selected third overall in the first round, the former LSU consensus All-American was flagged for two pass interference penalties in the first quarter. Sutton had seven catches for 122 yards and Wilson targeted him 11 times with wide receiver Jerry Jeudy out with a rib injury with X-rays later determined to be negative. Stingley also broke up an end zone pass from Wilson intended for Sutton.
“I thought he had his moments where he did some good things, but part of the learning process is going through some games like that,” Smith said. “He’ll only get better from here.”
A strong start for the Texans didn’t lead to a strong conclusion, and the outcome was telling of where they’re at right now as a team one year removed from a 4-13 finish.
“We’re a different team than last year,” Kirksey said. “We talk all the time about being a good team and seeing flashes of being in the game. Now, we have to learn how to finish and not have self-inflicted wounds. Penalties, that’s unacceptable. That’s how you get beat.
“We need to look ourselves in the mirror. As a team, we’re still trying to figure out our identity. We still have all our goals in front of us. There’s no need for us to panic or go backward. We still have a lot ahead of us and we’re a good team.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com