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Run, Houston, RUUUNNNNN!

Can the Texans finally get back to running the ball in 2022?

NFL: Scouting Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While many might think a young quarterback’s best friend is an all-pro wide receiver. For Davis Mills, that might be Brandin Cooks. But, the real way to take the heat off Mills comes from a rejuvenated running game. If Mills did ok last season with no ground attack to speak of, imagine what he could do in year two with an actual NFL caliber rushing scheme.

From Arian Foster’s heyday, to Lamar Miller’s wasted years to the 2021 dead last in the league performance, the Houston Texans run game has slow faded its way to the bottom of the barrel.

After years of watching a Bill O’Brien offense slam every running back on the roster into the A-gap so often even non-football fans knew it was coming, it’s easy to see why this team’s run game has suffered. However, the utter lack of smart play calling hasn’t been the only reason. Poor offensive line execution, an empty talent cupboard in the running back room and a complete inability by the coaching staff to put players in position to win has all been to blame.

As the saying goes, when you’re at rock bottom the only way out is up...

But, this IS the Houston Texans, so that’s not a certainty.

However, newly minted offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is known for, well, running a solid rushing attack. Now that Hamilton has swept out the last vestiges of the A-Gap Attack, Nick Caserio has brought in some better offensive line and running back talent, and no one knows how to slow down yards after the catch monster Brandin Cooks, 2022 might be the year.

Houston Texans Running Back Roster for 2022

Darius Anderson

Rex Burkhead

Royce Freeman

Marlon Mack

Dare Ogunbowale

Dameon Pierce

Prior to the off-season, the 10-year veteran Burkhead was the best option in the room for gaining ground yards. Over the course of his career, the former Cincinnati Bengal and New England Patriot has gained 1,828 yards with a 4.0 yards per carry average and scored 17 touchdowns.

For comparison’s sake, Arian Foster gained 1,616 yards with a 4.9 yards per carry average and 16 touchdowns - in just the 2010 season.

In free agency, the Texans added Marlon Mack, the former Indianapolis Colt, who has gained 2,484 yards with a 4.4 yard per carry average and 20 touchdowns in his five years in the league. His best season saw Mack rush for 1091 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2019. Unfortunately, he hasn’t eclipsed 102 yards in a season since suffering an achilles tear in week one of the 2020 campaign against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Yes, this is the same injury that ultimately ended Arian Foster’s career. The NFL isn’t exactly littered with stories of running backs returning to form from these sorts of things, much less coming back and outdoing their pre-achilles-injury output. But this is the off-season, so hope springs eternal and all that...

Enter former Florida Gator Dameon Pierce. The Bainbridge High School product rushed for 2,132 yards and 32 touchdowns his senior year before committing to Florida, turning down offers from Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and other big schools.

While at Florida, Pierce never gained more than 574 yards in a single season, but he did strike pay dirt with 16 touchdowns in his senior year of college.

Former NFL star running back Maurice Jones-Drew broke down the latest rookie crop in a piece on, listing Pierce as a “system player” and ranking him 9th among available tailbacks in this year’s draft.

Pierce is a strong runner with good speed for a guy of his size (5-10, 218). I like Lance Zierlein’s NFL comp for Pierce: Isaiah Crowell. This Florida product is a tackle-breaking back who can also help in the pass game. In the right system, Pierce will get an opportunity to play and excel on first and second down. In the wrong system, he’ll be limited to short-yardage and goal-line situations. player bio page

It’s a fun afternoon of tape study watching Pierce play the game like a coiled spring ready to explode on each snap. He’s an urgent runner with twitchy downfield burst, tackle-breaking leg drive and outstanding balance through contact. He reads and reacts to block development quickly and creates additional yardage with both power and subtle shiftiness. Pierce was highly productive (16 total touchdowns) in 2021 despite an embarrassingly low usage rate by the coaching staff. He has plenty of tread left on the tires and fits into any run-blocking scheme as a quality future starter or member of a RB tandem.

If the new & improved offensive line can open holes for Pierce, you can bet he’ll find them and gash the defense. If he can get some solid chemistry with Texans 2nd year quarterback Davis Mills, Houston might finally have a player that does what David Johnson and Duke Johnson were brought in to do.

However, in the modern “running back by committee” world of NFL offenses, Houston still seems a back or two shy of a top tier run game.

Projected running back depth chart per ESPN:

RB1 Marlon Mack

RB2 Rex Burkhead

RB3 Dameon Pierce

Expect Pierce to hit the top of that chart quickly. But, if Houston really wants to improve their ground game, adding another man to tote the rock is in order. Since the team combined for only 1,422 rushing yards last season, it shouldn’t be hard to break that number this year. But, they’ll need another thousand on top of that to return to top 5 run game status.

The eternal-off-season-optimist in me thinks Pierce could break the 1k yards mark in the right circumstances. But, expecting Mack and Burkhead to contribute more than 4-500 each feels like a big reach.

There aren’t really any game breaking names in the free agent pool, so Houston will have to hope against hope that Pep Hamilton, the offensive line and the current faces in the RB room can get it done.

But, who knows, Caserio might swing a trade using his bevy of 2023 draft picks to land a running back already on another team.

Or, maybe Tankathon 2021 The Sequel is headed to a Houston Stadium Near You soon. Then quarterback C.J. Stroud can lead the offense in 2023, armed with better running back options than Davis Mills had last year.

For now, however, In Pierce We Trust...