EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Texans quarterback Davis Mills uncorked a costly lob intended for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett in the fourth quarter in an obvious attempt to try to put the points back on the scoreboard nullified by a penalty on the previous play.
One play after Mills’ touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandin Cooks was negated by a holding penalty called on rookie offensive guard Kenyon Green, the second-year quarterback from Stanford forced the football into traffic on a red-zone shot and the errant throw was intercepted by defensive back Dane Belton.
That late interception, Mills’ ninth of the season, took away from a strong second-half performance delivered by him after an underwhelming first half when he passed for just 35 yards on 6 of 13 passing. Mills’ performance, despite a season-high 319 passing yards and an 85.3 passer rating, was defined primarily by missing reads, failing to recognize aggressive Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s unpredictable blitz packages and the Texans going 1 for 6 in the red zone during a 24-16 defeat Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
Despite the return of starting wide receivers Nico Collins from a groin injury and Cooks from his displeasure at not being traded, Mills was unable to capitalize on the personnel boost. He completed 22 of 37 passes with one touchdown for an 85.3 passer rating, but the offense didn’t make progress.
If it’s perhaps time to consider replacing Mills with backup Kyle Allen, that’s not the inclination of Texans coach Lovie Smith.
“I just don’t think it’s time, as simple as that,” Smith said. “Quarterback position is a little bit different. We rotate pretty much at most positions, we play more than one guy. Quarterback position is a little bit different. We can’t turn the ball over. Acknowledging what we did today is not good enough and anytime we’re turning the ball over especially in the red zone it’s not good enough. But that’s where we are right now.”
The collaboration between Mills and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton hasn’t led to a lot of points or yards. The primary bright spot on the offense is rookie running back Dameon Pierce, who rushed for 94 yards and also lost a key fumble in the red zone as defensive lineman Leonard Williams ripped the football out of his hand.
“Obviously, the frustration is there,” Mills said. “No one likes losing, especially me. That’s probably the worst feeling I can ever imagine, is losing something when you’re putting in all the hours to go out there and win games and it’s just not happening.”
Mills has completed 62.3 percent of his throws and has an 81.67 passer rating. The Texans converted just 3 of 10 third downs Sunday and fell behind 14-3.
“Quarterback, we needed to play better today,” Smith said. “I mean that’s pretty much it.”
Frequently, Mills throws it shy of the first-down marker on third downs. That makes it hard for the Texans to sustain drives, leading to multiple three-and-outs and lots of work for punter Cameron Johnston, who averaged 45.8 yards on five punts.
“Sometimes when the deep route is covered, you check it down,” Smith said. “We can’t do that. That’s not good enough. We’re trying to get to (shorter-distance) third downs, so you have to push the ball at least that.”
The interception thrown by Mills in the fourth quarter was a poor choice.
“Very critical,” Mills said. “Not coming away from that drive with points is big. It changed from maybe worst-case scenario getting a field goal there, which allows us to go down that next drive and it be a one-possession game. So, it’s tough. I’ve got to be smarter with the ball there.
“We’re 2nd-and-25, we don’t need it all back at once, trying to score. I can find the checkdown on that and get ourselves into a third-down situation still in the red zone with a lot of plays at our disposal, so I’ve just got to continue protecting the ball and be better in that way.”
There’s been a ton of speculation about the Texans, who would own the first overall pick if the season was over today, about drafting a quarterback, perhaps Ohio State standout C.J. Stroud or Alabama star Bryce Young.
Mills was asked about his status as the starting quarterback.
“It is what it is,” Mills said. “I’ve got to go out there and make plays just like everyone else. My job is to go out there and protect the football and win football games and we haven’t done it up to this point, but we’re really close and we’re optimistic each week going forward that we’re going to go out there and do enough to win games and that’s what the feeling in the locker room right now is. Everyone is hungry for this next week at home against Washington to go out there and get a win.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com.