HOUSTON – Standing inside the locker room, Texans rookie safety Jalen Pitre captured the state of the team.
Winless at 0-2-1 heading into Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers at NRG Stadium, the Texans’ last victory was Dec. 26, 2001, over a depleted Chargers squad dealing with multiple COVID-19 cases among their key players.
“We’re starving right now,” Pitre said when asked how hungry the team is for a win. “Everybody is taking it very personal in our approach.”
Texans running back Rex Burkhead rushed for a career-high 149 yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Davis Mills had a 130.6 passer rating during a 41-29 victory last season over the Chargers earned despite not having wide receiver Brandin Cooks, kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, defensive end Jonathan Greenard and center Justin Britt due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Now, the Texans, whose worst-ranked run defense was exposed again in a winnable game over the Chicago Bears, are trying to figure out how to manufacture a win over a banged-up Chargers team that will play without wide receiver Keenan Allen, defensive end Joey Bosa and offensive tackle Rashawn Slater while quarterback Justin Herbert continues to battle through a rib injury.
The Texans have been outscored by a combined margin of 30-0 in the fourth quarter in a tie against the Indianapolis Colts and ensuing road losses to the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers.
“I think we just need to practice harder,” Pitre said. “When we practice harder, we’ll continue to get better and eventually get the results we hope to see. We definitely have the talent.”
The Texans are 22nd in red-zone scoring percentage with a 50 percent success rate.
Mills has completed 4 of 7 passes overall in the red zone for 30 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. He’s 1 for 4 inside the 10-yard line with one touchdown and one interception.
“Not being able to finish mainly with touchdowns in the red zone versus field goals,” said Cooks, the target of a deflected Mills pass in Chicago in the red zone that was intercepted by safety Eddie Jackson. “That’s just the name of the game these past three weeks. In order to do that, we’ve got to just execute better at the end of the day.”
Mills has completed 57.9 percent of his throws for 662 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions and has been sacked seven times. He hasn’t thrown a touchdown to anyone other than tight ends O.J. Howard and Jordan Akins.
In eight career games at NRG Stadium, Mills has completed 68.63 percent of his throws for 1,965 yards, 14 touchdowns, and one interception for a 108.0 passer rating.
On the road, in eight games, Mills has completed just 60.98 percent of his throws for 1,361 yards, five touchdowns, and 11 interceptions for a 64.1 passer rating.
“We’re trending in the right direction,” Mills said. “It’s going to be nice playing in front of our fans at home on Sunday, feed off the energy, and go out and make some big plays for them, so that’ll be fun.”
A lot of the Texans’ hopes hinge on rookie running back Dameon Pierce. The hard-running fourth-round draft pick from Florida has seen his workload keep increasing.
Pierce is working on ball security having fumbled twice with none lost against Chicago.
“Really, it all comes down to me being aware when you’re in traffic make sure I don’t get it put it back on the ground again, said Pierce, who estimated he had fumbled four times in high school and college. “I’m probably harder on myself than any of the coaches. I’m on myself before they even get to me. (Running backs coach Danny Barrett) came to me and, ‘Man, like you’re good.’ Because I’m young, I’m still learning, but that’s no excuse for putting the ball on the ground.
“That’s an issue that’s definitely getting fixed, Nah, we can’t have that no more. When I’m getting my extra yards, I’ve just got to keep in mind, ‘ball first.’ Yeah, it’s cool that you’re fighting for extra yards, but it’s the right way to do so. I was just doing it the wrong way.”
Pierce went from 11 runs for 33 yards against the Colts to 15 runs for 69 yards against the Broncos to 20 runs for 80 yards against the Bears.
“Each week I’m getting better and better and just learning the flow of the game,” Pierce said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s like a game within a game. I’m getting better at that. My eyes are getting better, my shoulders are getting better and my steps are getting better. Ultimately, that’s going to lead to better cuts.
The Texans allowed a season-high 281 rushing yards against the Bears, despite losing starter David Montgomery to knee and ankle injuries. The tackling was substandard, again, a recurring theme for the Texans’ defense.
“You have to wrap up,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “That’s what we didn’t do. Are there ways to improve it? Yeah, get in a little bit better positions and wrap up once you get to the point of attack.”
The Texans tend to play better at home, like most NFL teams.
Whether that leads to a victory remains to be seen for a team that went 4-13 a year ago.
“When you go on the road, that’s a part of life in the NFL,” Smith said. “There’s nothing like coming back home so we’re excited about coming back to NRG Stadium. The last time we were there, we didn’t finish the job. We talk about finishing, a lot of finishing first, just drives, third-and-1.
“You look at those plays, they’re there to be made. As we watch the video and as we talk to the guys, this play right here could mean the difference in the game. Guys understand that. It’s hard for me to say what we’re doing on the practice field when we’re not seeing it always out there on Sundays yet. Eventually, that’s going to come.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com