Texans’ Pep Hamilton: ‘We’re going to learn how to finish games’

Houston Texans offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton gives instructions during an NFL football training camp practice Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (David J. Phillip, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

DENVER – Completely unblocked and unfettered, Indianapolis Colts linebacker E.J. Speed blasted Texans quarterback Davis Mills in the back for a sack and forced fumble as miscommunication in blocking assignments changed the complexion of the game.

The fumble recovery from defensive tackle DeForest Buckner in the fourth quarter led directly to a Jonathan Taylor touchdown run as Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil and left guard Kenyon Green were faced with two blitzing linebackers and the charge of the defensive line to account for and Speed bolted into the backfield for a game-changing play.

Ultimately, the fourth quarter breakdown set the stage for the Texans’ 20-20 tie to the Colts at NRG Stadium as they squandered a 20-3 lead and were outscored by 17 points in the fourth quarter before a scoreless overtime as coach Lovie Smith called for a punt on fourth down after running back Rex Burkhead was stuffed on 3rd-and-1 for a two-yard loss.

The offense, hamstrung by an ineffective running game that mustered just 77 yards overall and 2.8 yards per carry, got stonewalled by a stout Colts defense following a solid start that included a pair of touchdown passes to new tight end O.J. Howard. Between a pair of late sacks from Colts’ edge rusher Kwity Paye, false start penalties in overtime, and zero semblance of a running game, the Texans’ offense had no answers late in the game as Mills completed just 3 of 7 passes for 26 yards on the last three drivers of the season-opener.

Heading into a road game against the 0-1 Denver Broncos on Sunday, the 0-0-1 Texans need to upgrade their efficiency and consistency as they square off with a defense headlined by pass rushers Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory and talented young cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr.

“We’re going to learn how to finish games the way we prefer to finish them, and that’s running the football well,” Texans offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “There were moments where we felt like we would have a chance to be more efficient running the football and so we’re going to clean that up. I’ve got to do a better job of coming up with ways for us to feature the talents of our backs and give our guys up front the best chance to create double teams and do their job as well.”

The Texans were unproductive overall, with just 299 yards of total offense and an average of 4.4 yards per play on 68 snaps.

The Texans outgained the Colts 130-24 in net yards in the third quarter, but they couldn’t sustain the fast start.

“I felt like there were moments when we had a rhythm,” Hamilton said. “We were able to move the ball efficiently. We had a few big plays, but we left quite a few big opportunities out there on the field. Just the overall communication and play speed, we hope that that will improve the more our group plays together.”

On a key third down late in regulation, Mills was nearly intercepted by Colts cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, when he and wide receiver Brandin Cooks weren’t in sync. Although Cooks caught seven passes for 82 yards, this was clearly an opportunity missed.

“We had a third down late in the game where Brandin and I were on a little bit of a different page,” Mills said. “Stuff like that will pop up. It’s good that it happens early in the season so we’re able to talk about it, correct it and make sure we’re moving forward in the same direction on the same page and being efficient in that way.”

The Texans want to get more out of the running game and plan to increase the workload of rookie running back Dameon Pierce after he gained just 33 yards on 11 carries on the heels of an impressive preseason.

“We just have to get more first downs,” Hamilton said. “We need more opportunities to just run more plays in general. For us, we want to start faster. We want to finish fast as well. We want to finish the way that we always talk about finishing, and that’s with the ball in hand, in a victory formation, but that didn’t happen.”

The Colts had 33 first downs, 13 more than the Texans last week.

The Texans had just four first downs on the ground.

“We started that game, we went three-and-out, missed opportunities on third down for whatever reason and that just affects the overall volume of runs and plays that you’ll run over the course of a game,” Hamilton said.

What didn’t happen as frequently as the Texans hoped for: distributing the football to a variety of targets.

That includes second-year wide receiver Nico Collins, an imposing, 6-foot-4, 215-pound former third-round draft pick from Michigan.

Collins had just two catches for 26 yards on three targets while new tight end O.J. Howard had two touchdowns on two throws to him in his first game with the Texans.

“It’s the first game, it’s early in the season, we just started,” Collins said “There’s an opportunity to build on last week and work on things going forward. Definitely, the confidence is high. We’re still building. The season just started. We’re only one week in.”

Mills completed 23 of 37 passes for 240 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions for a 98.9 passer rating.

He would like to get Collins more involved on the heels of a rookie season during which the Alabama native caught 33 passes for 446 yards and one touchdown on 60 targets last season and averaged 13.5 yards per reception.

“Game-plan stuff, he has routes,” Mills said of Collins’ lack of touches. “He has individual routes on the backside as the X receiver, where we see him matched up with somebody one-on-on we trust that he’s going to win.

“There’s other stuff where he’s just going to be built into a concept as really the first one, two or three progressions. There will be organic ways he’ll get the ball and he’ll make big plays for us.”

When Mills wasn’t throwing to Cooks, he frequently went to Burkhead. Burkhead caught five passes for 30 yards on eight targets. The next highest targeted player was wide receiver Chris Moore with three catches for 31 yards on three targets.

That’s not ideal.

“It is intentional on where we are trying to go with the football, but the defense has something to do with that as well,” Hamilton said. “The more we just continue to just come up with ways to feature all our guys, it’ll happen. I do think there were opportunities where maybe the progression could’ve continued and we could’ve advanced on to other targets. We are trying to get all of the guys involved.”

The pass protection issues the Texans had against the Colts could be a sign of more to come. The Broncos are a challenging defense to play against with a lot of speed coming off the edge.

“Both teams have really good pass rushers, those guys are coming off the edge, firing off the edge, and making plays,” Mills said. “I feel like we have tackles and the guys on the edge who are going to be able to protect against that and are confident versus anybody. They are going to do their job to the game plan and study those guys and their pass rush moves and how they want to attack. We’ll be able to block them up and give me enough time to make plays to those guys on the edges.”

The Texans’ offense is in flux. They want to run the football but haven’t proven to be effective at that strategy one year after having the worst running game in the NFL statistically as the experiment of Rex Burkhead, David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay, and Mark Ingram Jr. didn’t work out as planned.

“We have quite a few young players that are still accumulating reps as players in this league but really just gaining their traction as professional football players,” Hamilton said. “You can’t teach experience. We hope that some of the scars that you accumulate along the way are reminders to doing the things that you’ve got to be successful in this league.”

This game marked Hamilton’s first as the Texans’ offensive coordinator after being promoted when Lovie Smith was named head coach. Hamilton has a lot of creative concepts he wants to implement. The mistakes players committed were a factor in not having a better offensive performance. Overall, there’s a lot of confidence in Hamilton’s game plan and playbook.

“First game, I thought was great,” Cooks said of Hamilton. “I think at the end of the day, players have to be able to help execute. Obviously, he’s hard on himself, so he goes back to the drawing board. We’ve got to be able to execute those little things, those small details, and talk through them. You see that sense of urgency from him, which leads over to the offense.”

Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com

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