The Texans (0-3-1) travel east to face Jacksonville (2-2) in a Week 5 matchup at TIAA Bank Field. Houston's won 19 of the last 23 meetings between the franchises, and hasn't lost to the Jaguars since 2017. Here are five things to watch when the AFC South foes kick off at noon CT on Sunday.
1) Pierce's Progress
Dameon Pierce played his finest game of the season, and his young NFL career, last Saturday against the Chargers. The rookie carried 14 times for 131 yards and a touchdown, and also caught six passes out of the backfield. His 75-yard touchdown run re-invigorated his teammates and the NRG Stadium crowd.
With an average of 5.2 yards per carry, Pierce is going for nearly two yards better every rushing attempt than the Texans averaged in 2021. Each week this season, Pierce's per-game yards have risen: from 33 in Week 1, to 69, 80 and then 131 last weekend.
"Last week we showcased how well we were up front in the run game," Pierce said. "We've just got to stay consistent on it and keep stacking on that. We've got a good foundation to run off of and build off of, and that's something we're going to keep doing going forward."
The young back definitely has the full attention of Jacksonville Head Coach Doug Pederson.
"He's a load," Pederson said. "He's thick and he's solid and had a nice 75-yard run last week and he's capable of doing that. It's got to be all hands on deck, obviously, to get him on the ground."
2) Mills in motion
Quarterback Davis Mills believes it's important for the Texans to get going offensively, earlier. In the first quarter of the first four games, Houston's been outscored a combined 23-10, and has mustered a first quarter touchdown in just one game. Mills wants to get on the scoreboard sooner, and more often.
"We're ready to go out and attack early on in games and not have to feel that feeling at halftime or late in the game where we need to try to get back on track or catch up," Mills said. "Really have that urgent feeling from the start of the game and just go out and make big plays from the start."
Despite the slow starts, Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton was encouraged by what Mills and company did in third and early fourth quarter last Sunday against Los Angeles.
"I think we saw a point where I felt like we had a good rhythm as an offense," Hamilton said. "We were able to hit some big plays and good things were happening. We felt like we had some momentum, but nevertheless, there's no reason that we can't start games that way. Now, just take a lot of pressure off the sideline by putting up points early. Have to do a better job that way."
3) Addison addition
Defensive end Mario Addison has been on injured reserve to start the first quarter of the season, but he practiced with the team all week. There's a good chance he's activated and eligible for Sunday's contest in Jacksonville. The veteran pass rusher led the Bills with six sacks in 2021, and his comeback from injury would mean "pure speed" for the defense, according to his position coach Jacques Cesaire. Addison's return would also be welcomed by defensive end Jonathan Greenard.
"We know he's got speed, mentality, everything," Greenard said. "I think continue to just feed off that energy and what he brings to the table is going to help all of us as a unit in the room."
As a defense, the Texans have 11 sacks this season.
4) Speaking of defenses…
Jacksonville's defense is impressive. They've picked off an NFL-most seven passes, and have allowed 16.7 points per game, which is the fifth-best mark in the league. Defensive end Josh Allen has three sacks in 2022, while rookie linebacker Devin Lloyd has picked off two passes, broken up six, and is tied for the team lead with 38 tackles.
"They're playing at a high level from their front seven to the back end and they're doing it on a consistent basis, week in and week out," Texans wide receiver Brandin Cooks said.
Mills was complimentary of the Jaguars secondary, and is especially wary of the Jacksonville defensive front.
"They've got a lot of guys who change around in their defensive front and want to attack the quarterback," Mills said. "We've got to be ready to defend against that."
5) Special delivery
The Texans special teams was one of the key differences between these two squads the last time they met. Tremon Smith returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the first half, and Ka'imi Fairbairn kicked a trio of field goals, two of which were from beyond the 50-yard line. Three of Cameron Johnston's four punts were downed within the Jaguars' 20-yard line.
But Jacksonville has a new Special Teams Coordinator in Heath Farwell, and his counterpart in Houston was quick to point out the good things the Jaguars have done in the kicking game.
"That unit has been injected and infused with energy from Heath Farwell coming down from Buffalo," Ross said. "That's a good kicking game unit. We have our hands full. We need every single person that's on the active roster to contribute, find a way to get an edge in that phase of the game."