Damien Pierce stars as the Texans get an elusive first win

from Ben Arthur
FOX Sports AFC South Writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – To understand how the Texans finally won a game, start with Damien Pierce’s will.

With Houston facing a second-and-five just outside the red zone late in the final quarter, the rookie fourth-round running back put the team on his back. Literally. He broke six or seven tackles en route to a monster 20-yard run that put the Texans within two yards of the end zone.

Almost every defender on the Jacksonville Jaguars has failed against Pierce and failed. It was a run where he seemed to gain strength with every body thrust. A run that left the press speechless, the crowd stunned at TIAA Bank Field.

Two plays later — two more Pierce passes later — the Texans reached the end zone and their defense held for the final three minutes for Houston to escape Jacksonville with a 13-6 victory on Sunday.

With the win, the Texans (1-3-1) posted their ninth straight win over the division rival Jaguars (2-3), who dropped to second in the AFC South with the Titans (3-2) win in Washington.

Houston hasn’t lost to Jacksonville since December 2017.

“What I really felt was that I was tired at the beginning,” a laughing Pierce said of his run. “But after I got a little breather, man, it was like we just needed a wave. We were just looking for someone to make a play… We were putting drives together but not finishing them and punishing and playing our type of football. We’re back to our style of football.”

Pierce’s stellar performance was made possible by a poor decision by Jaguars outside linebacker Travon Walker, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He brought down Texans quarterback Davis Mills on a dead play, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty. That gave Jacksonville a first down in plus territory at the 38-yard line.

Pierce picked off four straight carries to cap his scoring drive.

“Coach likes us to run to the ball in case something happens. So I run. I see him making tackles,” Texas right guard AJ Kahn said of Pierce’s 20-yard run. “I’m like, ‘Oh shit! He’s going!’ … That’s the kind of running back he is. We like that. We like that physicality.”

Fans never got to see the full Pierce experience at the University of Florida, where he spent four seasons. He was part of the backfield rotation in former Gators coach Dan Mullen’s offense. His single-season rushing high was 574 yards, reached his senior season. His college tape doesn’t scream “bona fide No. 1 running back.”

The Beast’s draft guide to The Athletic, which relies on insight from NFL scouts and coaches, says Pierce “doesn’t have the resume of a cowbell or big-play maker” — but also notes he has the chance to be more a good pro from the college player.

The latter, it turns out, was an omen.

Pierce had 26 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars, his third straight game of at least 80 yards rushing and a touchdown. His performance Sunday followed his 14-carry, 131-yard effort against the Chargers last week. He has 86 carries for 412 yards and three scores on the season.

Pierce’s 412 yards through the first five weeks of the season is a franchise record by a rookie, according to the Pro Football Network.

According to Next Gen Stats, Pierce has faced at least seven defenders in the box on 22 of his 26 shots, tied for the most such carries in a game this season. He gained plus-95 rushing yards above expectations this season, the most by a rookie in Week 5 of 2019.

“He does what a (No. 1) running back in the NFL is supposed to do and on a day like today we had to rely on the run and I thought he was outstanding,” Texas coach Lovie Smith said. “It’s fitting that when we needed a game like that, he would be the one to come up.”

But it wasn’t all about Pierce in the Texans’ first win of the season.

It was also about the defense stifling one of the league’s best offenses, which entered Sunday ranked sixth in scoring at 26.3 points per game.

Rookie cornerback standout Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 3 overall draft pick, beat Trevor Lawrence in the end zone on the Jaguars’ first drive of the second half. Houston came up big in the fourth, where they held Jacksonville to 0-for-3. Two of those stops came within four yards of the sticks. Linebacker Christian Kirksey and defensive end Maliek Collins stuffed Jaguars running back James Robinson for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Houston 38 with 12:38 left. That shutout came against a Texans defense that entered the game as the second-worst run defense, allowing 172 rushing yards per contest.

The Jaguars were also held to 0-for-3 in the red zone. Lawrence completed 25 of 47 passes for 286 yards with two interceptions.

“I thought (Lawrence) ran a lot and a lot of those passes that were incomplete had a little bit to do with some of the pressure,” Smith said of the defensive line’s performance. “It’s about rush and coverage, especially today. It’s a tough assignment for our defensive line today because we weren’t blitzing a lot. So when the offense pretty much knows it’s four players, you can rally against those four, but they battled hard.”

With the efforts of Pierce and the defense, the Texans shed the tag of being the only winless team in the NFL.

Smith, with his first win as Houston’s coach, now wants more.

“It’s big because I know how hard it is,” Smith said of the NFL victory. “We have been fighting for four weeks and we have not been able to finish it. That’s all we talked about. I know how the guys behind the scenes reacted.

“But now that we’ve taken care of that,” he added, “I’m just anxious to get that second win now.”

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) before moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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