As soon as the first rain drop hit my head, I knew. That's Texans weather, baby, well, at least in 2021, it's Texans weather. That first rain drop was one of about a million as we all got drenched, well, most of us, anyway. But, BUT, it didn't matter as the Texans strung together one of the best three phase wins in recent memory. Three phase win? Yes. Offense. Defense. Special Teams. All three phases contributed in a major way in the Texans' 30-16 win in Duval County over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Here are my Harris Hits from a rainy, yet winning Sunday in northeast Florida.
I'm going to start with the special teams star on this day - Tremon Smith. I was standing about ten yards away from Smith as he ran forward to catch the short kick from the Jaguars after Jacksonville cut the lead to 7-3. Having coached outfielders many eons ago, I always stressed getting behind the ball such that the outfielder could get the requisite momentum to crow hop and make a throw. The same concept works for returners - get behind the ball so that you're running through the ball which provides momentum up the field. Smith started back in the end zone but when the kick came up short of the goal line, Smith, just like an outfielder, camped under the kick with plenty of speed and momentum forward. The way he caught the ball made me think he had something and he did. Smith cut up the field and then to the left. He cut inside a Jaguar and it looked like he had a solid return. Then, Smith broke through about four or five tackles and he had a GREAT return. By the time he got to the 50-yard line, Smith was free and clear and running to the end zone with the first kickoff return touchdown for the Texans in 12 years. It looked easy for sure, but Tremon told me after the game "not going to lie, the legs were feeling a little heavy once I got clear." Yet, no one in a teal jersey came close to catching him
But, he was far from finished. He downed a punt inside the five yard line. He had another kickoff return out to the 33-yard line in the second half. It was one of the best overall special teams performances for the Texans I've seen in quite some time.
With Kamu Grungier-Hill and Christian Kirksey unable to play due to COVID, the Texans were down to three linebackers on the 53-man roster. They had to call up Connor Strachan to make a fourth but the linebacker corps was certainly stretched thin. Enter rookie LB Garret Wallow. Of the five drafted rookies from the 2021 Draft class, Wallow was the final one to step into the starting lineup but when he did on Sunday, my gosh, he was outstanding. He hit everything that moved. He had a couple of hits that I heard through my headphones. He ran down QB Trevor Lawrence. He made tackles out in space. He stepped up and hit ball carriers in the trenches. It just felt like #32 made every single tackle throughout the game. I don't know if he stays as a starter or not, but, man, the Texans may have found a gem on day three at linebacker in Garret Wallow.
During our weekly interview last Tuesday with Nick Caserio, I asked him about Wallow and one thing stood out to me more than anything else. Nick noted how much Wallow had improved DURING the season. He had gotten stronger. He had been making significant strides in practice. That improvement gave rise to Wallow's opportunity to get on the field, combined with the unfortunate COVID surge over the last week. Regardless of how it happened, Wallow got that chance and it made me want to see more of the former TCU star.
Rookie QB Davis Mills earned his first win as a starting QB on Sunday. He's the fourth rookie to earn a win as a starting quarterback in Texans history, if my math is anywhere near accurate. Mills didn't light the Jaguars up like he did the Patriots earlier in the year, but he made a number of key throws throughout the day.
The first key throw was the final play of the first drive of the game. Mills rolled right on what appeared to be a rub route with WR Brandin Cooks seemingly setting the rub. But, as soon as the Jags DB took two steps toward the flat route, Cooks darted up the field. I saw Cooks immediately, but Mills was running hard to his right and that's one of the hardest throws to make - a throw with a bit of sauce/a bit of zip/a bit of touch in the complete opposite direction. Yet, Mills threw a dime to Cooks who then beat everyone to the end zone for the first score of the day.
The second key throw of the day was against the Jaguars blitz zero. The 'ol bugaboo. Miami ran blitz zero. Seattle brought some blitz, albeit not full out blitz zero. So, it was not surprising at all that Jacksonville decided to go full-in, all-out blitz zero and Mills beat it. It does help to have one of the fastest receivers in the NFL running down the field in Phillip Dorsett, but that throw was the one in which I thought "Okay, young buck, he's (Mills) getting it." as in understanding how to play that position. On that play, on my side, I could see Jaguars S Andrew Wingard coming free but what I couldn't see until I saw the replay on the big board was OLB Josh Allen coming free on the other side. That's the guy that Mills could see, right in his face. I was thinking he had a half second more to throw because Wingard was coming from depth but Allen was right there. So, when Mills threw that ball, I immediately took my eyes downfield to see who was open/what was available. Then, I saw Dorsett and he hadn't even made his cut to the sideline yet. That ball was thrown at the perfect time, but I'm telling the anticipation of where Dorsett was going to be and Mills' ability to throw to that spot and not slow Dorsett down was the absolute key to that throw. Dorsett caught it for 33 yards down to the Jaguars 11-yard line.
The third throw was the easiest throw and yet as important a throw as the first two - the quick screen to Cooks. Facing a third down, with just a few raindrops still coming down, the Texans went empty on third and nine from the Jacksonville 43-yard line. I'm always in queue with Marc and Andre in the booth and as soon as I saw the formation alignment, I just said "Screen." For once, I was 100% right…thankfully, because it was a screen to Cooks. That said, it's a short, but vital, throw that has to be in the right spot to give the receiver the opportunity to snatch, tuck and turn into a running back. Mills made THAT throw and Cooks did the rest. He sped 43 yards to the end zone to seal the two touchdown win/season sweep over the Jaguars.
The thing about those three throws? They all came on third down. That's the money down and Mills aced them to collect the win on Sunday.
Cooks is just awesome. Everyone in the building knew that Mills would look for Cooks in every tough situation and Cooks still racked up seven catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns. A buddy of mine in Jacksonville joked on Twitter that in week one of the 2022 season, the Jaguars would induct Cooks into the Jaguars Ring of Honor given what the Texans star receiver has done against them. Check these numbers:
Week 5, 2020 - eight catches, 161 yards, one TD
Week 9, 2020 - three catches, 83 yards, one TD
Week 1, 2021 - five catches, 132 yards
Week 15, 2021 - seven catches, 102 yards, two TD
In four games, 23 catches for 478 yards and four TD. Over a 17 game span, that projects to 98 catches for 2,032 yards and 17 TD.
What a weekend DB Tavierre Thomas had!! His alma mater Ferris State, a DII football program in Michigan, won its first ever national championship on Saturday afternoon. He got on the bus wearing his Ferris State quarter zip pullover and walking with A LOT of pride. Then, once again, he proved to be one of the better players on the field with the 71 snaps he played. He finished with 11 tackles on defense and continued to make things happen on special teams too. A Natty and a W over the course of 24 hours is a nice December holiday gift for a guy who has provided a TON of ROI for the Texans in 2021.
I mentioned Garret Wallow above and his play at linebacker but he was far from alone at the linebacker position. His running mate on this day Neville Hewitt was outstanding as well. He finished with 9 tackles and a tackle on special teams too - that made 21 tackles between the two starting backers. When Hewitt's on the field, dudes get absolutely smashed as he's a physical hammer in the middle. He and Wallow weren't perfect, but for guys playing together for truly the first time, that duo handled its business fairly well.
After the game, I saw RB Rex Burkhead on the field and he just smiled at me and said "had to grind that one out." He was dead on. The Texans had to shift the OL around a bit with their starting guards both out due to COVID, so Tytus Howard shifted back inside to guard and Geron Christian Sr. moved back out to left tackle. The numbers don't tell a full story, but Burkhead's north/south no nonsense style behind that OL, that physically took it to the Jaguars, was the perfect tonic for Mills and the passing game. In the fourth quarter, both on and off the air, Marc, Andre and I noted how sore Rex was going to be after this one. He carried it 16 times plus one catch and there wasn't one of those in which he ran out of bounds or scored a TD standing up. He did exactly what he said - he was "grinding" all day. He put his head down, ran behind his pads and pounded. Sure, it was just 41 yards rushing, but he helped put the offense in 2nd and eight or less throughout the day. Two and three yards each time helped get into makeable third down situations that the Texans converted at a 55.6% clip. It wasn't fancy but physical and sort of just the way it has to be done on a day with that kind of weather.
As we flew back Sunday night, out of the blue, something hit me. In the first win over the Jaguars, the Texans picked off Trevor Lawrence three times, won the turnover battle. In Nashville, the Texans had five takeaways, won the turnover battle. On Sunday, the Texans lost the turnover battle as Mills threw an interception to rookie CB Tyson Campbell and the defense didn't get a takeaway. They lost the turnover battle and won the game by 14. That goes back to my original thought of this being a three phase win. All three units took over the game, and had to without a takeaway, to aid the Texans offense.
One key situation took place before halftime when the Texans took over after a fourth down stop with the Texans ahead 17-10. They had 21 seconds left in the half, ball at the Texans 38-yard line but did have all three timeouts remaining. Mills went to work and did a masterful job. Three completions and three timeouts later, the ball sat at the 33-yard line with :03 left in the half. It was time for another FG opportunity on the last play of the half but in the rain, on a wet field and with wind in his face, K Kaimi Fairbairn had it much more difficult than last week when he stood ten yards further back. Didn't matter, though, as Fairbairn DRILLED that field goal through the rain right down the middle to give the Texans a ten point lead heading into the half. They never looked back.
Fairbairn hit two 51+ yard field goals in the second quarter. I don't remember that ever happening, but he and Cam Johnston are kicking and punting as well as any duo I've seen in a while. They are true weapons for this team.
The Texans had three sacks on the day from three different defenders - Wallow, Derek Rivers and Chris Smith. To show how things change over the season and have changed this year, in particular, none of those three took a defensive snap for the Texans in Week 1. Wallow had 15 special teams snaps, while Rivers was on the practice squad. Smith wasn't even in the building.
This will be a win I remember for a while. 11 guys down due to COVID. A near monsoon at times. An opponent with some juice after a coaching change. Division road game. Yet, the Texans fought like heck and won a game in which they were five point underdogs. HOW they did it was almost as impressive THAT they did it. I walked on the bus in the rain, wet and tired, but truly proud of the effort that this group of Texans put forth on Sunday afternoon in Duval County. Happy Holidays, everyone!!
The Texans host the Chargers on Sunday at NRG Stadium. Kickoff is set for noon CT.Click here for tickets.