About this time last year, running back Dameon Pierce was on his way to being one of the very few bright spots on the 2022 Houston Texans roster. Coming off the performances like he had against the Los Angeles Chargers and the Chicago Bears in September of 2022, it wasn’t hard to see why he had captured the imaginations of a Houston fan base desperate for a silver lining to such a bad team.
Dameon Pierce’s hot start to his rookie year came just as Houston sank to its lowest point during the rebuild, a lone star in the dredges of October and November 2022. At the beginning of what would end up being a 1-10 run for the Houston Texans, Dameon Pierce exploded onto the scene. From Weeks 3-9 of his rookie season, Pierce gained 670 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns, averaging 4.82 yards per attempt. In this seven game stretch, he only faced one team that was able to hold him to under 100+ yards from scrimmage, the Tennessee Titans. So far, this period of time has been the peak of his tenure with the Texans, becoming a north star in an otherwise dark sky above a rudderless 2022 roster. Since his recovery from a high ankle sprain that curtailed his rookie season, Pierce has been, unexpectedly, the weak link on the Houston offense. Instead of Pierce taking the pressure off of rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud by leading a good rushing attack, it’s been the opposite.
Even this past week, where Pierce had arguably one of his best performances of the season, it was still largely underwhelming. 12 carries for 46 yards, averaging 3.8 yards per attempt, that average brought up by a couple big runs he broke. And this total came against one of the league’s worst rushing defenses. It wasn’t all of his fault, but this isn’t what you’d expect from what was initially believed to be the workhorse of the offense.
So, what happened? How is the rushing attack 23rd in the league? Why was he so good back then when Houston was arguably at its lowest point, and why is he worse now?
Well, before I get flamed in the comments, it’s important to mention his offensive line. The offensive line is the fulcrum to which everything bends around. Even though the run-blocking was poor all season long in 2022, they had their best moments from Weeks 3-9. Tackles Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard were reliable run-blockers, but guards A.J. Cann and Kenyon Green also had arguably their best stretch of the season during this length of time. I bet going against three of the five worst run defenses of the 2022 NFL season (CHI, LAC, NYG) during this stretch helped their performances, as well.
To his credit, Pierce talked about the offense’s difficulty getting up to speed on 610 KILT-AM. “New offense, so it’s really like another rookie year for me,” Pierce said. “Complete overhaul from top to bottom … completely new identity, whole new philosophy. Just trying to find how I can … make plays within the system.”
So, even Pierce himself will admit they’re having a bit of a slow start on the ground. The 49ers-esque wide zone running scheme will come with growing pains, but shouldn’t we be seeing more progress halfway through the season?
Well…we are, just not from Dameon Pierce. After seeing his touches peak in Week 4 vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pierce has seen his snaps decline. Against the New Orleans Saints, his number of snaps bottomed at 21, far less than fellow running back Devin Singletary received (34). In fact, Singletary has seen his utilization rise recently, getting 12 carries and a catch in New Orleans and 10 carries along with two catches in Charlotte. Singletary himself has yet to have a breakout performance, but his acceleration and lateral speed have proven to be a real asset to the ground attack. He’s already gotten some vital third-down conversions for this Houston team, making increased participation seem almost inevitable. Third-string back Mike Boone also had good touches the last few weeks, making the Dameon Pierce question a real dilemma to DeMeco Ryans. After success with a variety of backs, does Ryans stick with Dameon Pierce as the bell cow, or embrace the committee approach?
It’s hard to consider taking snaps away from Dameon Pierce after only eight games, but consider this: center Jarrett Patterson fractured the fibula in his right leg last week against the Panthers, ending his season. This means Houston will be starting yet another new combination of linemen in Week 9 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He will be replaced by Michael Deiter, a 2019 third-round pick by the Miami Dolphins out of Wisconsin. Rookie center Juice Scruggs from Penn State was expected to be off injured reserve by now after suffering a hamstring injury in the preseason finale vs. New Orleans, but he is still, according to Aaron Wilson, “…one or two weeks away from returning.” So, the honor goes to Michael Deiter, who looked shaky at best in the preseason and quickly lost the depth chart battle to Patterson, himself a rookie sixth-rounder out of Notre Dame. Even if Deiter sheds his preseason chrysalis and blossoms into a solid center, I don’t expect him to lead a rejuvenated rushing attack with Dameon Pierce.
So, why not take some pressure off of a depleted line by sticking with what works, Devin Singletary? Yeah, I’m showing my hand now. To Pierce’s credit, Singletary has also been inconsistent as a pure rusher, but he’s at least closer to his 2022 production than Pierce, and his ability as a receiver makes him increasingly valuable in an offense leaning more into throwing the ball. With an offensive line in flux, having a speedy, multipurpose back will account for more inconsistent blocking. Pierce has Singletary beat in pile-navigation and in raw strength, but without some good blocking to get him churning, Pierce suffers. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are currently ranked tenth in rushing yards allowed, he’s going to have even more trouble.
That is, if he even ends up suiting up for the contest. As of Thursday, Dameon Pierce has yet to practice this week, and is questionable to play in Sunday’s game:
#Texans running back Dameon Pierce (ankle) didn't practice again and is trending toward not playing Sunday against #Buccaneers also not practicing and not playing Sunday: Robert Woods (foot) and Brevin Jordan (foot, plantar fasciitis) @KPRC2 https://t.co/JykTecv1x4— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) November 2, 2023
An injury setback will make rebounding in the latter half of the season even more difficult. An ankle injury is exceptionally infuriating because of its mystery: it can be harmless, with Pierce making a full recovery within days. Or it can be catastrophic, nagging at him game after game, preventing him from playing to his full potential.
But, the silver lining to all of this is Juice Scruggs. Scruggs is strong, fast enough to stay in front of Dameon Pierce, and had a fantastic preseason. Maybe when Scruggs returns from IR to anchor the center position, flanked by Tytus Howard and Shaq Mason, Pierce will have enough talent in the trenches to get back to his old self. But, until then, let’s lean on those speedy backups to chew up some yards.
But, what do you think? Is Dameon Pierce cooked, or is he just a game or two away from proving me wrong? Is Devin Singletary the answer, or another progress stopper? Let us know in the comments below!