Unsurprisingly, the Texans suffered a disappointing 24-9 loss to the Panthers in front of their home crowd on Thursday night. Houston simply did not have enough talent to compete with Carolina following a slew of injuries. But, despite the expected outcome, the game still featured many unexpected moments to analyze. Here are eight things we learned from the Texans’ Week Three performance:
1. Put A Pause On “The Three Headed Monster”
The hype was building for the Houston backfield after the team rushed for over 150 yards in Week One. However, things have slowly fallen apart and it culminated last night with the Texans gaining just 42 yards on the ground. Now, it is hard to run the ball when the defense knows it’s coming on every play. But, this lackluster performance follows a week in Cleveland where Houston recorded below three yards per carry.
Mark Ingram has shown good production, but he is past his prime and simply cannot be a workhorse. His counterparts Philp Lindsay and David Johnson have come nowhere close to meeting expectations. Without a consistent ground game, the entire Houston offense falls apart. The Texans will have to figure this issue out fast as they take on the better front seven units in this league.
2. The Offensive Line Was Dissapointing
It’s hard to run the football with no blocking, and that was the issue most of the time the Texans had the ball. Brian Burns, Hassan Reddick, Morgan Fox, and the rest of the Panthers’ front seven dominated from out of the gate. There were simply no holes created, and tacklers were in the backfield all night.
Things got worse when Houston attempted to stretch the field in the passing game, as Davis Mills was under pressure on nearly every drop back. By the end of it, Carolina had logged three sacks and nine QB hits, getting past blockers with ease. The offensive line is the one part of this team that has remained healthy, and it’s disappointing to see it take a step back after two great outings. Hopefully, this was a one-time thing and redemption can come soon.
3. The Run Defense Is Still Suspect
On the flip side of things, Houston’s run defense is better from last season but still doesn’t inspire confidence. Before CMC got injured in the first half, he was gashing the defense with strong runs. And even after CMC left the game, backup Chubba Hubbard quietly achieved 4.7 yards per attempt.
On the plus side, the Panthers weren’t able to consistently pound it down the Texans’ throats, but the run game did make enough of an impact to set up play action. This comes after a week when Houston was bullied by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Granted, the Panthers and Browns are the two best rushing offenses the Texans will face all year. But reassurance is much needed before full confidence in the team-run defense can be gained.
4. Bringing The Heat
The first positive takeaway from this game was Houston’s own ability to generate pressure on Sam Darnold. On Thursday night, the defense racked up three sacks as well as five QB hits. And, although they were unable to force any turnovers, the Texans did come close with two forced fumbles.
This dominant effort was spearheaded by Ross Blacklock, Whitney Mercilus, and Johnathan Greenard, who made his first appearance of the season on Thursday. Through three weeks now, Houston has been able to force opposing QBs into uncomfortable situations with a variety of players. It’s become clear that no matter who is in the game, Lovie Smith’s scheme can wreak havoc, and offenses need to start responding accordingly.
5. Injuries In The Secondary Are Unbearable
It was obvious to anyone watching that the Texans’ best players were not out in the secondary on Thursday Night. And, this is a unit that was already lacking in talent, so the injuries made it nearly impossible to cover anyone. By the end of the night, Sam Darnold had thrown for over 300 yards while DJ Moore gained 126 yards on eight catches.
With starting cornerback Terrance Mitchell out, the Panthers were able to work Veron Hargreaves III, who just couldn’t keep up. Additionally, Houston left the middle of the field wide open the entire night, and Carolina gained most of their passing yards in this area. Justin Reid’s absence is likely to blame as safeties Eric Murray and Lonnie Johnson Jr. were often playing too deep. As the soul of this defense, Reid cannot come back soon enough. However, Lovie Smith’s coverage scheme is also starting to get exposed which is cause for some concern.
6. Brandin Cooks Is Criminally Underrated
It’s nearly impossible to say enough about how good, and how underrated Brandin Cooks is. To say he carried the Texans’ offense on Thursday only tells part of the story. Cooks accounted for close to 60% of the total yards gained by Houston and caught over half of the passes Davis Mills threw. He didn’t just carry the offense, he was the offense.
Cooks’ best moments came in the team’s lone touchdown drive where he caught four passes to set the offense up for a go-ahead score. Time and time again, he continues to deliver no matter who is throwing him to football. And despite the offensive struggles, Cooks has remained a team player throughout it all. Brandin Cooks. Put some respect on his name.
7. Davis Mills Is One Tough Cookie
As with any rookie quarterback making his first start, there is a lot to unpack from Davis Mills’ first performance on Thursday. He finished the day with 168 yards and one touchdown, completing over 67% of his passes. These are not bad numbers considering how other rookies have faired around the league.
Mills began to show flashes with under two minutes left in the first half as he led the team down the field for a score. He had time in the pocket to throw and was able to showcase his strong arm. Unfortunately, Mills was unable to show much else the rest of the way as he was under distress all night from the Panther’s front seven. He’ll need to work on reading defenses pre-snap and his accuracy under pressure to get to the next level.
Above all, the main thing that stood out from Mills’ performance was his toughness. Especially late in the game when the playbook opened up for him, Mills was taking big hits on almost every play. It was honestly a miracle he even got up after some of them.
However, that’s exactly what Mills did, he got up and kept going. The entire way through he never looked nervous or uneasy and took command of the offense. The grit that Mills showed us is something to build off of in the coming weeks.
8. Tim Kelly Did What He Could
Many fans have criticized the overly conservative playing calling from offensive coordinator Tim Kelly in this game. And while it wasn’t a game plan that had a high chance of succeeding Kelly didn’t have many other options considering the circumstances.
Houston’s main goal was to protect Davis Mills and that’s what they did in the first half. While the plan didn’t accomplish much, mistakes were avoided and the team was still in the game. This was better than the alternative of Mills getting hit on every play which is what happened when the Texans attempted to push the ball downfield in the second half.
At the end of the day, as good as Mills looked at times, letting him throw the ball any more than he did would have caused more harm than good. The biggest issue was the execution of the run game and pass protection more so than the play calling itself. But hopefully, with a longer break before Houston takes the field against Buffalo, Tim Kelly will be able to develop a better strategy centered around Mills’ skillset. For now, cut him some slack.
Overall, this was a poor performance by the Texans that can be attributed to injuries and the short week. That being said, there were several bright spots to build on as the team heads into a tough stretch on their schedule. Houston has some time to prepare for a matchup against the Bills; and, improvement should be expected.