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The Film Room: Yes, Davis Mills Was Really Good Against New England

A look at the rookie QB’s stellar performance against the New England Patriots.

New England Patriots v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Of all players, quarterbacks should remain cloistered inside of the depth chart for the longest band of time possible. Rookie quarterbacks are usually thrown in too soon, unfinished, unprepared to meet the world. Consequently, their only protection when they face NFL defenses is the scheme and the talent surrounding them. Protection in the intra-uterine period should be prolonged. When catastrophe strikes and rookie quarterbacks are forced to play before they are prepared to, it’s up to the coach and the offensive coordinator to shelter them from the evils cooked up by NFL defenses.

Davis Mills was forced to play professional football before he was ready. His preseason performance was typical of what you see from a third round selection. Inaccurate passes. Vanilla offense. Awful sacks. Constipated ball movement.

Regardless of what you think about Mills, the Houston Texans’ front office let him down. Backing up an injury-prone quarterback who is now entering his NFL twilight years, Nick Caserio didn’t sign a true backup quarterback to Tyrod Taylor. They wasted a draft pick to acquire Ryan Finley, who didn’t even make it to the preseason before being released. Jeff Driskel was brought into the practice squad. Caserio didn’t foresee a likely possibility. His process was incorrect. He left Mills to back up Taylor, and the expected came to fruition.

Against Cleveland, Taylor rolled right before the half. His hamstring popped and sizzled. Mills came in, still covered in vernix, and was forced to take on one of the NFL’s better defenses. He survived and put seven total points on the board. The following weeks, Houston rolled out a please don’t die offense—conservative, run heavy, only allowing Mills to attempt easy passes.

Mills would throw screen passes, and sometimes, he’d barely complete them.

He’d throw quick curls/comebacks and out routes to Brandin Cooks. His head craned and stuck only in his direction.

And sometimes they’d change it up by having Mills run a quick boot to hit the same out route.

This, combined with the league’s worst run offense, banded together to create the worst offense in the NFL. Houston scored 16 combined points over eight quarters. Mills entered the David Carr zone against Buffalo. Houston’s passing offense DVOA was -201.75%, and his quarterback rating of 23.4, was the third worst in franchise history, ahead of only a 2005 and a 2002 David Carr performance. These are the completions from that historic performance (not in a good way) against Buffalo.

Poor pocket presence. Limited arm strength. Slothful movement outside the pocket. Problems against pressure. Down to down inaccuracy. The same limitations Mills had at Stanford, he had to start his career in Houston.

This was everything that happened before. Previous failures evaporated. Last week, all of that changed. Against one of the better pass defenses in football, with his run offense putting together another terrible performance, Mills vanquished what happened before, and completed 21 of his 29 passes for 312 yards, threw 3 touchdowns to 0 interceptions, took 3 sacks, and averaged 10.75 yards an attempt.

On the opening drive, Houston plodded their way down the field on an 18 play (19 if you include the defensive pass interference penalty on J.C. Jackson covering a Brandin Cooks corner) that went 79 yards to score in 10:06.

Mills’s first pass attempt, brought the ire of the sardonic and those with sour hearts. Tim Kelly dusted off the Deshaun Watson playbook, and put Mills in an empty shotgun formation with five wide receivers. The Patriots play cover one on the majority of their snaps, especially against a quarterback who had yet to complete any meaningful passes deep down the sideline.

On second and eight, New England did exactly that. They’re playing cover one with Dont’a Hightower (#54) acting as the rat defender. Tim Kelly is attacking New England, similar to how he attacked Jacksonville with stacked sets and rubs. In a 2x3 formation, Houston is trying to create a mess to open up David Johnson and Pharoah Brown. To the boundary side, Brandin Cooks (#13) releases upfield to open the quick dig for Johnson (#31). On the field side, Chris Conley (#18) is running a pivot route, Jordan Akins (#88) releases upfield similar to Cooks, and Brown (#85) runs into the flat from the tight end position. Mills knows his easiest throw presnap. It’s Ja’Whaun Bentley (#8) coming over pool of bodies to cover the flat.

Mills misses the throw wide. Yet another tally in the ledger of his problems consistently completing the easy ones.

Mills was able to draw a defensive pass interference penalty by throwing the corner to Cooks. J.C. Jackson grabbed him at the top of his route on 3rd and 8. New England was once again playing cover one rat.

With the ball at the 46, on 1st and 10, the Texans lined up a shot attempt. After running the ball seven out of the ten times on the drive, Kelly called in a play action air strike.

For a team mired in a lost season created by their own disastrous decision making, Mills doesn’t need to win games, or necessarily be a down to down great quarterback. He just needed to show something, anything, that could be extracted, and molded into a future starting quarterback. Through the first ten quarters there weren’t flashes, there wasn’t even a glimmer. The only skill Mills showed was a NO FEAR tattoo that went across his upper back. Play after play he’d bunker down in the pocket and attempt passes through debilitating hits.

The Patriots are playing the same defense, opting to rush four instead of five, so they can take away the dumpoffs, and the easy stuff to their running backs. This time Bentley (#8) is the rat. He is responsible for the back. If he runs out to a route, he plays man coverage, but if he stays in to block he can either sit in a hook zone, or rush the passer. With Johnson alluding to blocking, before releasing in the flat, Bentley opts to rush the quarterback.

Everything is covered. Both Conley and Akins were clunky, and latched onto when they broke on the dig, and the out. Jackson allows Cooks to release inside, since he has deep middle safety help. Bentley brings the pressure, Mills bites the belt, heaves it up, takes the hit, but there isn’t a chance to complete this. Taking a shot like this, and standing strong in it, is the only skill Mills has shown up to this point.

Later in the drive, Mills had a chance to redeem himself on his miss throw to Akins. It’s another short throw, from a quick drop, that needs to be delivered on time, and with precision. On 4th and 2, David Culley’s gut was feeling dangerous. Houston went for it by relocating Johnson to wide receiver, his new position, against cover zero, and Devin McCourty (#32) playing off man coverage. Johnson runs a slant. From a 1x3 formation, without a safety deep, Mills is guaranteed to have man coverage, and face a blitz. It’s a two step drop, the ball is out, and Mills puts it on Johnson in stride.

This sort of throw was seen throughout this game. Mills unearthed a new section of the skill tree. He routinely hit quick passes in stride.

To get into the redzone, Houston utilized another casper screen, then a jet sweep to Chris Moore. Facing 3rd and 1, from the 11 yard line, Kelly called another play action pass instead of merely diving head first to convert.

Mills motions Brown (#85) across the formation, pulling Kyle Dugger (#23) along with him, signifying man coverage. With Jackson locked across from Cooks, the Patriots tendencies, and their current gameplan, man coverage is expected. Antony Auclair (#83) runs the seam, Akins (#88) the quick hook, and Brown (#85) the flat. The offensive line blocks down to sell zone left, a play Houston loves to run from three tight end sets. All Mills is looking for is a trailing defender’s back.

He gets exactly this. Dugger watches the back, and it isn’t until he sees Auclair running past his peripheral vision, does he realize, that, yes, he’s made a tremendous mistake. He can’t recover and his trailing the entire way. Mills makes the perfect throw. High, over the defender’s inside shoulder, protecting himself from Dugger sticking a blind arm up to bat it down.

The fireworks really started to fly after this drive. Up this point, Mills was 1/6 for 30 yards and 1 interception when throwing passes over 20 yards through the air. He completed only 6 of his 13 attempts for 102 yards, and threw 3 interceptions, when passes were between 10-20 yards. Mills subsisted entirely on throws ten yards or less. When he took shots downfield there wasn’t a plan, it was aimless heaves, that usually looked like this.

On the following drive, the game tied 7-7, on 3rd and 2, Mills did two things he hadn’t done before. Create on his own, and complete a pass down deep down the sideline. The first read is David Johnson running a choice route. He reads the man coverage defender, if he has outside leverage, he runs an inside breaking route, if he has inside leverage, he breaks outside.

Hightower (#54) is the read defender. With him wide, after jamming Akins, Johnson breaks inside. Bentley blitzes, but when he sees Johnson release inside, instead of outside, he drops back in coverage. Two defenders take away Mills’s first read. Up to this point, Mills struggled to get past his first receiver, mainly Brandin Cooks.

With this covered, Mills rolls right to create a quick boot, and a better throwing angle for the outside breaking routes. New England only rushes three. Matt Judon (#9) is the flat defender. He chases after Mills once he breaks right. The trap is set. Everything is conspired against Mills.

Moore and Conley are both covered. Chris Moore is running up the sideline with Jackson (#27) running with his back turned to his quarterback. Moore is the best option of the three, and his only option, since he can’t escape from Judon. McCourty comes over from the deep middle position to play the overthrow. The ball is put between both defenders, in the perfect spot, in the only place where this pass could be completed. From there Moore turns on the jets and outruns the defenders picking up the pieces to score.

He didn’t only do this once. He did it twice. On the following drive, Mills hit Chris Conley on the move, at a similar position of the field. This time it’s on 4th and 2.

The coverage and route combinations are similar too. New England has three rushers once again. They are playing cover one rat, and once again have Judon (#9) jamming and playing the flat. This time Houston is running the mesh. Judon and Hightower (#54) work together to jam the middle, and muddy up the releases. From there they are playing man coverage. It’s Phillips (#21) on Akins, Jackson (#27) on Cooks, and Williams (#33), Jalen Mills’s replacement, on Conley (#18).

Conley is the aberration. From the slot he’s running a corner with a Dino stem. He has an inside release, he fakes the post, before breaking wide to the sideline. This may also be an option route for Conley with the middle of the field closed. Mills checks only Cooks on the out. With this covered, he rolls right once again, and this time he turns upfield to bring his momentum into the throw. Conley wins his route against Williams, and McCourty, coming from the opposite hash, is at a disadvantage. Mills rips this throw. McCourty can’t get there in time.

Breaking out of the half, after a Lonnie Johnson Jr. interception, Kelly dialed up another shot. On 2nd and 3, Houston called up a flea flicker. Once again, Houston picked on Williams. Conley blocks Williams, sheds him, and then runs upfield on a vertical route. With one safety deep, Williams is on his own again. Mark Ingram really fakes the funk on this nasty funk. The pass protection is perfect, giving Houston enough time to pull it off, and Mills leads Conley into the endzone.

This week Mills was 3 for 5 for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns on throws over 20 yards. He completed his longest pass of the season that traveled 41.8 air yards. At Stanford his best trait was throwing with touch down the sideline. He didn’t show this in the NFL until this game, and in it, he made three downfield throws that ranged from perfect, to absolute bonkers.

There were two other aspects of his game that were entirely new. The first was going through his progressions. Previous games Mills’s head would be affixed to Cooks’s movement, like some flesh and bone solar system. If Cooks wasn’t open, he’d have nowhere to go.

My personal favorite throw of his came in the redzone. In an attempt to not get beaten by play action again, the Patriots run a form of cover three in the redzone. Mills motions Chris Moore (#15) to the slot, and New England’s cornerbacks shift to follow. Dugger jams Moore, before sitting in the short middle, when he does, Hightower replaces him in the flat. McCourty is stuck flatfooted chasing the electric Moore. On the other side of the formation, Cooks is running a whip route against Jackson.

The whip holds Jackson in place, and mistakenly, he grabs Cooks, even though he has help inside. This doesn’t allow him to pivot from the flat, to the third he’s supposed to cover. Moore torches New England’s secondary, and is open in the corner of the endzone.

Mills fakes the hand off. He reads Cooks first, when it’s covered he scans right to left, resets his feet, and catches Moore coming from the opposite side of the formation. Mills’s body is a straight line with the throw. Unlike what we saw in previous weeks, Mills has zip on the ball, along with accuracy, and puts it through a triangle of Patriots defensive backs.

The other was throwing to the middle of the field with accuracy. His previous falters and failings came when he was throwing to the middle of the field, into traffic, directly into a mash of bodies.

Off of play action, against a rare cover three look on 1st & 10, Mills hits the post to Brown, and hits him directly in front of the free safety.

Similar throws to the center of the field were also seen in the quick game. Two step drops, easy reads against outside leverage, and linebackers focused entirely on the running back, Mills put it on the receiver in stride and on time. Entirely different than what we saw in previous weeks.

There isn’t a pair of winged slippers he can split on. There isn’t something he can drink to increase his speed by +5. Mills is never going to be a real threat with his legs. Sure, he can scramble against man coverage with backs turned, and dip around tackles in the pocket, but he’s never going to be someone you’d describe as mobile. Houston’s coaching staff harped on taking sacks, instead of throwing interceptions.

In the redzone, up 12-6 with 1:36 left in the second quarter, on 3rd and 6, Mills is sacked by Matthew Judon. Kelly is trying to create an open throw to the center of the field, either to Cooks or to Johnson. Cooks runs a slant, but is bracketed by the safety and cornerback—who trails off to the short middle once he trails him to the safety. Johnson is running another choice route, and cuts it to the inside. Kyle Van Noy (#53) is playing the rat.

This time everything is covered. Charlie Heck (#67) is beat by a Judon inside move. This is where youth, and athleticism come into play. Mills immediately reacts, with Judon hunting him, by escaping the pocket right. Against zone coverage he doesn’t have a running lane. With his feet all over the place he can’t react to Johnson breaking open, after confusion between Van Noy and Phillips (#21) on how to pass Johnson. He should slide right away from the pressure and keep his eyes upfield since he can’t rush to score. Instead he’s forced eating the sack.

This is still a better outcome than throwing late to Johnson, while being tackled, with Phillips closing in. Taking a sack typically isn’t the worse option. A turnover usually is.

On 2nd and 8, Mills took another sack. Justin Britt (#58) was put into conflict by the double ‘A’ gap pressure. He bites on Bentley coming (#8) rather than focus on the ‘A’ gap with the protection sliding left. Bentley drops into coverage instead. Jamie Collins (#58) gets him to bite with a short hitch that fakes a retreat into coverage. He blitzes and has an open path. Mills hunkers down and takes the sack.

Because of his body, Mills is always going to have problems against interior pressure. To overcome it, he’ll need to have a better understanding of where to slide protections, and where to throw the ball. The ball moves faster than the player, but the brain moves faster than the ball. The key is that Mills went the entire game without a turnover. This is the bar for a typical rookie quarterback. David Culley created the short fields by his insane coaching decisions. It wasn’t because of Mills this time.

Against New England, Kelly put more on Mills’s plate. There were multiple reads instead of a single read. Routes grouped together to give him multiple throws without having to see the entire field. The run game was terrible, but it didn’t have as many zero yard gains, or negative plays, which created more manageable third and fourth downs. It also helped that New England opted to not blitz, and instead focused on taking away the checkdowns, without getting much front four pressure of their own.

With weeks of preparation, instead of days, and a longer incubation, intricacies and layers were added to the offense, Mills escaped the Carr zone, and had one of the best performances you’ll ever see from a rookie quarterback. After not showing anything, Mills had touch on deep passes, accuracy and zip on shorter throws, made quick decisions, got the ball out immediately, followed through his progressions, and even created on his own. This wasn’t anything we had seen from Mills before.

Questions always surround young quarterbacks, as the team searches to see what they have in them, and the league deciphers how to stop them. There are numerous ones still left unanswered after this performance. Are these deep throws replicable? How wills Mills react next time he plays against a blitz heavy defense? Can the accuracy stick with more zip on the ball? Will he have the same control on the ball playing outdoors?

With Taylor on the shelf, there will be plenty of more games to have these questions answered. For now it’s celebration until additional games provide more time for rumination. Mills has finally shown glimpses of something after staring his career showing absolutely nothing.