HOUSTON -- When carrying five running backs, the expectation is to run the ball, right? The Houston Texans did just that in Week 1's 37-21 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, finishing with 41 rushing attempts.
The following week's 31-21 loss to the Cleveland Browns saw a more balanced offense. Houston rushed 28 times against 29 passing attempts.
With limitations in the passing attack, plus a rookie quarterback making his first start on a short week, maybe it's back to moving the ball on the ground.
“We could always have room for improvement," offensive lineman Tytus Howard said. "We've got to tighten up some technique in the running game. You have a couple missed assignments. But as a group I think we know what we need to do to get better and we can showcase that this weekend.”
In both games, Houston's average yards per runs has be below par. In Week 1, the team averaged just 3.9 yard per run. The following week, a mere 2.9.
Yes, the Texans are committed to the run, but they currently rank 25th in average yards per attempt (3.5). Last week, Houston also struggled running the ball to the left side, averaging less 3 yards per attempt.
Davis Mills, the rookie out of Stanford, will make his first career start at quarterback against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night. Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow will likely send pressure with Haason Reddick and Brian Burns coming off the edge.
Carolina currently leads the NFL in sacks (10), pressures (26) and QB hits (21) through two weeks. To make matters worse, Houston is limited in the passing game beyond a rookie trying to execute the game plan.
Rookie wide receiver Nico Collins (knee) and slot receiver Danny Amendola (hamstring) are not expected to play, and could miss up to four weeks.
"We're going to try to help [Mills] out running the ball, making it a lot less stressful for him as a rookie," running back David Johnson said. "I was there, everybody was there. The best thing that you can have is a great veteran group that we have, and then guys who you can lean on to talk to about it.”
The addition of Mills also means a subtraction in the rushing attack. Although this season he's relied on his arm, Tyrod Taylor can get into the open field, picking up first downs and even finding the end zone.
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Don't believe it? Take a look back at the second quarter in the opener against Jacksonsville. Not only was Taylor's 15-yard run the longest play from scrimmage, it also tied the game at 14-all going into halftime.
Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly says that the scheme and game plan shouldn't change much with Mills taking first-team snaps. However, the 6-4 Mills' isn't as mobile and Taylor, which puts more of an emphasis on the running backs.
"There's going to be different challenges ... with each quarterback that goes out there, there's going to be things that certain people do better than others," Kelly said. "So, it's our job as coaches to figure what they do best and make sure we're putting them in those spots as many times as possible.”
Carolina's run defense is just as impressive as its pass rush. Teams are currently averaging 46.5 yards per game and a mere 2.7 per rush.
“They fly around the ball,” Texans' coach David Culley said. “They remind me a lot of how our defense plays. Their upfront guys really get after it."
Mills may be limited in the passing game outside of checkdowns to running backs and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Against the Browns, Houston allowed just one sack to a defense that features Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett.
The Texans rushed for only 82 yards.
It's another week against a quick front seven, but protecting Mills is just one aspect of the game that will need attention. Moving the ball on the ground and controlling the clock is the bigger area of improvement, and everyone must be ready.
“I think just accountability, me included," Johnson said. "When I see a hole, running through it, doing everything I can for that, helping out the offensive line, setting up blocks, especially on the second level when a linebacker is just sitting there seeing what I'm going to do."