It was a pivotal moment for Davis Mills running the no-huddle offense as he took the shotgun snap from center Scott Quessenberry and scanned the field in search of an opening at Soldier Field.
Instead of rallying his team to a potential first victory of the season by engineering a decisive fourth-quarter drive against the Chicago Bears’ defense, Mills extinguished the Texans’ hopes with a critical error.
Mills flipped his throwing stance from his right when he didn’t see anything breaking open even though wide receiver Brandin Cooks appeared to be wide open, pivoting to his left as he looked directly at running back Rex Burkhead. When Mills’ 3rd-and-1 pass was deflected by former Texans defensive tackle Angelo Blackson, it spelled doom for the comeback attempt.
Bears star linebacker Roquan Smith adeptly read the play, and Mills’ eyes. He jumped the disrupted pass for a clutch interception with Mills tackling him after an 18-yard return that set the stage for Bears kicker Cairo Santos’ game-winning field goal. It’s conceivable that Smith would have picked Mills off regardless of the tip by Blackson. He was sprinting full-speed toward the football as soon as Mills turned his head to look at Burkhead.
It wasn’t the only ugly moment for Mills and the Texans during their latest setback, a 23-20 road loss that drops their record to 0-2-1. Mills was also intercepted by safety Eddie Jackson in the first quarter on a red-zone throw he forced to Cooks that was deflected by Kindle Vildor.
“I take responsibility for it,” Mills said. “I turned the ball over late in the game when we needed it. It’s the quarterback’s job to protect the football and to put ourselves in a position to win ball games. I’ll take responsibility for it, but, overall, tough results.
“It’s tough. We talked about it a lot. Tipped balls never touch the ground. Got through my progression, made the correct read, had Rex open and the ball got tipped at the line. Nothing I could really do about it there. Good play by the defense. Just unfortunate down in the red zone, too.”
It’s no secret why the Texans are losing football games and squandering leads. They’ve been outscored by a combined margin of 30-0 in the fourth quarter. Mills entered Sunday having completed just 5 of 16 passes for 75 yards in the fourth quarter. This time, he played even worse as his late interception cost the Texans a chance to either win the game in regulation or take their chances in overtime.
“It’s like everybody else, we’re just not quite there yet,” said Texans coach Lovie Smith, the former Bears coach and NFL Coach of the Year after losing in his return to Chicago. :”I wish I could tell you exactly. If I could tell you exactly why, I would tell you. I would tell him not to do it, but things just didn’t go. Got to make better decisions, got to protect the ball. That’s something we have done is we haven’t turned it over an awful lot. Today wasn’t that day, though.
“That’s a critical situation. That’s a time when you cannot have a turnover down in that area, and it’s pretty much over if you do. Can’t let games come down to one play there. I’m more upset about that interception in the end zone first, but when you get down there, you’ve got to be able to capitalize with a touchdown.”
The Texans have lost two consecutive games by a combined margin of 10 points. Instead of an undefeated start for a team that finished 4-13 last season, the Texans, while more competitive in games, keep finding ways to lose them.
“Exactly, you guys have seen we’ve been in three situations where we had a chance to win the game,” offensive guard A.J. Cann said. “I feel like once we get over that hump and figure out to win at the end of the game, I think we’ll start stacking them up. It’s frustrating because we feel like we could be 3-0 right now. It’s tough. I’ve said it before. We have to learn how to finish these games because we have opportunities and we’re right there.”
Mills generated a combined passer rating of 102.4 with 1,258 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions in the final five games of his rookie season. He hasn’t played to that level so far this year, though, as he appears out of sync with his receivers.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Mills said. “The guys, we all know it. We’ve been really close in all these games and we’re confident in our abilities. We’ve just got to find a way late in those games to switch the result and get wins, and I think once we start doing that and start building momentum, there will be a big change around here.
“I think there’s tough situations. You’ve got to find a way to do whatever it takes to win those games. We haven’t done that yet, but we’re really capable of it. Momentum is a real thing in this sport. Once we start building momentum, I think it’s going to be a different thing.”
Because of Mills’ turnovers and a porous run defense that got out of its assigned gaps and missed multiple tackles, the Texans managed to lose despite playing against another struggling second-year quarterback: former Bears first-round draft pick Justin Fields.
While Fields was completing just 7 of 18 passes for 106 yards for a 27.7 passer rating and intercepted twice by rookie safety Jalen Pitre, the Texans’ offense turned those opportunities into zero points.
What happened after those interceptions? Nothing good.
Mills was intercepted in the red zone after Pitre’s first pick. Mills was sacked on third down in the fourth quarter and the Texans punted it back to the Bears after Pitre’s second interception.
“Offensively when we do take the ball away, when there is a positive play from the defense, it doesn’t do any good to take the ball away, if you don’t get points off of it,” Smith said. “Take the ball away, you need to be able to get points off of it.”
The defense allowed 281 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries, an average of 7.0 yards per carry despite Bears standout running back David Montgomery injuring his ankle and knee. His backup, Khalil Herbert, rushed for 157 yards and two scores on 20 carries and Fields scrambled for 47 yards on eight runs.
The Texans lost a 14-13 halftime lead, and they were unable to rely as much as they hoped to on their running game despite an encouraging performance by rookie running back Dameon Pierce. Pierce rushed for a career-high 80 yards and his first NFL touchdown on 20 carries. He also fumbled twice with both recovered.
“I mean, the frustration level is at 100,” Pierce said. “Every Tuesday, we set that goal of winning every week. Obviously, there’s a level of frustration, but all we can do now is come back Tuesday and grind and try to come back next week.”
The Texans converted just 3 of 12 third downs and had 17 first downs overall. Mills had his moments, including throws of 52 yards to wide receiver Chris Moore, a 30-yard completion to tight end Pharaoh Brown, a 25-yarder to tight end Jordan Akins, who caught a touchdown after being elevated from the practice squad and a 22-yard pass to wide receiver Nico Collins.
However, Mills completed just 2 of 7 passes for 22 yards to Cooks.
He completed 20 of 32 passes for a season-high 245 yards for a 70.4 passer rating and was only sacked once.
The Texans were more efficient at times, but not consistently enough.
And that’s a major reason why, including quarterback performance, that they have failed to win a game heading into next Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
“I guess shooting ourselves in the foot,” Mills said. “Really that last drive, I thought we were all confident that we were going to move the ball down the field and go down and either kick a field goal to win it or score a touchdown. That defender made a good play at the line of scrimmage to tip it and they got the turnover. Tough one today.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com