(SportsRadio 610) - Regardless of team expectations by anyone entering the season, whether it be the Texans front office, coaching staff, fans or media, one thing is clear.
Dameon Pierce makes the Texans a better football team.
It became pretty evident after just a few days of training camp, that Pierce, the Texans' rookie fourth-round draft choice out of Florida, was the best running back on the roster.
Two games and 11 touches during the preseason was enough for the 22-year old Pierce to show his explosive and decisive style.
It was all the Texans needed to see for them to make him the starting running back heading into the season.
Now, he’s a top 10 running back in the league, ranking 10th in attempts (60), yards (313), yards-per-game (78.3), touchdowns (2) and rushing first-downs (15).
He’s also got the longest play from scrimmage by a running back through four weeks after the 75-yard touchdown run against the Chargers this past Sunday.
Yet, while the fans and media alike spent much of the time this off-season lamenting the quarterback situation with Mills already entrenched as the starter, amongst plenty of other head-scratching decisions, the question became whether they had the talent around him to give him the best chance to succeed.
Certainly, talent could be much better and proven, but with one of the more respected and underrated receivers in the league in Brandin Cooks, coming off a career high 90-catch season and second-year receiver Nico Collins expected to take a big step as a number two target for Mills, the Texans seem to have found a difference maker they maybe didn’t know they had with the emergence of Pierce.
After four weeks, zero wins and the eighth-worst rushing offense in the league, despite Pierce’s 14-carry 131-yard performance in Sunday's loss to the Chargers, the Texans have oddly struggled to explain why Pierce has not been on the field in high leverage situations and late in games.
One of the most questionable calls to date, came on a 4th-and-1 call with the Texans driving and trailing 24-7 with less than a minute to play in the first half.
Pierce was watching from the sidelines as Rex Burkhead rolled out to the right with Mills on a pass-option play that ended just as quickly as it started. Chargers edge rusher Khalil Mack sacked Mills for an eight-yard loss and a turnover on downs at the Chargers' 24-yard line.
“We’re going to play more than one running back. Some plays he’s not going to be out there. It so happened a few of the plays have been big plays and we didn’t handle those right,” Lovie Smith said Monday. “Dameon (Pierce) on the fourth down play that you’re alluding to had nothing to do with the tailback there. We busted an assignment on the line of scrimmage to have a guy go free.
"As I said on that play (Sunday), that was a pass play that the quarterback could possibly even keep the ball on. It had nothing to do with our tailback on that moment right there.”
Smith is absolutely correct.
There was nothing Pierce could’ve done differently to prevent that play from being blown up the way it was.
However, Smith does control what play and personnel is called and utilized.
The final carry in Sunday's game not withstanding, which was supposed to be a kneel down instead of a run, the fact that Pierce has not gotten a touch in any one of the four previous games to start the season inside of the 6:13 mark of the fourth quarter is incredulous.
In the 23-20 loss to Chicago, Pierce wasn’t even on the field for the Texans' final nine offensive plays, getting his last touch, a fumble, at the 6:39 mark of the fourth quarter with the game tied 20-20.
It’s not just a matter of getting Pierce the ball in short yardage situations, it’s the fact he has not been on the field for many of the games' most important possessions, plays or highest leverage moments.
The Texans have seemingly shot themselves in the foot and limited their big play capabilities with Pierce on the sidelines. At the very least, they’ve made it easier for the defense to have one less threat to key on with Pierce off the field.
The Texans have felt more comfortable using veteran back Rex Burkhead in those situations and have even activated and utilized practice squad quarterback Jeff Driskel for those situations.
Pierce, albeit a rookie, has shown that he’s more than capable of handling the rock, picking up a blitz in pass protection and even catching the ball out of the back field.
He’s been lauded by teammates and coaches for his work in the classroom, film study and professionalism.
The latter, is what was most impressive following Sunday's game.
When asked about how he was handling watching from the sidelines in critical moments and late in games, the amount of respect he has for Burkhead, his mentor, stood out.
“Not saying that I can’t do it, but it’s like, having a guy that’s been in those situations who's like a step ahead, learning from him is probably like the best thing for me as a rookie like my first year in the league, just be a sponge around Rex, because you know he ain’t gonna be here forever," Pierce said. “While he’s here I’m trying to take advantage of everything he has, all the knowledge he has. Rex has been a great help to me in terms of my development and the way I see the game especially the way I see the passing game and just being comfortable in those critical moments.”
Pierce is an impact player and a real difference maker. But the Texans have their plans and maybe Pierce making too much of a difference isn’t one of them.
Dameon Pierce snap counts through first four weeks:
20 plays/ 29% of offensive snaps/12 touches 39 total yards
39 plays/62% of offensive snaps/16 touches 77 total yards
35 plays/59% of offensive snaps/22 touches 101 total yards 1 TD
39 plays/68% of offensive snaps/20 touches 139 total yards 1 TD
Shaun Bijani has spent the last 16 years covering the Houston sports scene for SportsRadio 610. Follow him on Twitter @ShaunBijani.