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Assessing The Texans’ Three-Headed Running Back Committee

Hail hydra.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

How the Houston Texans’ running back room would operate was one of the many intriguing story lines heading into the 2021 NFL season. Signing Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, and Rex Burkhead headlined offensive gluttony complete with changes and new faces. Instead of finding a long-term solution through the draft, Houston’s new front office decided to contrive a backfield of geriatrics looking for a new home .

Heading into the season, it was assumed former Denver Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay would take the reins of and be the first and second down back. His patient running style would fit well within the Texans’ run scheme, and his ability to catch the football would prove to be an effective safety valve for Tyrod Taylor. Along with Lindsay’s starting role, many thought David Johnson would be either cut or demoted to situational play as a rotational piece with Lindsay. As for Mark Ingram, many underestimated his relationship with David Culley and their familiarity with one another as a deciding factor in who would play what role in the offensive scheme. It was assumed what was left of Ingram’s career would be spent on the bench or on the rare red zone trip attempting to punch the ball in at the goal line.

Through three games, this has not played out at all. Any time a new regime takes over, the status quo will change and any expectations can be thrown out the door. Here’s what we know so far:

  1. Mark Ingram is the bell cow on first and second downs. He’s going to do the dirty work between the tackles and is the go-to player in the rushing attack.
  2. Phillip Lindsay is off to a horrific start. He’s averaging 1.6 yards per carry, which is a legitimate justification for cutting him early.
  3. David Johnson is primarily the pass catching running back but is also beginning to see as many snaps as Ingram. He’s off to a better start through three games than last year. He may be taking over the RB2 gig from Lindsay.
  4. Rex Burkhead is here for pass protection and special teams. He hasn’t recorded a carry yet, though he has gotten occasional snaps.

While these are more evaluation of past usage than self-evident truths, it shines a light on the priorities and preferences within the Culley era. Culley values staying “on track” from a down and distance standpoint. Negative or net zero plays are not a risk this offense takes. It prioritizes efficient, short yardage plays over risky down the field plays. This has lent itself to bludgeoning defenses with Mark Ingram’s physical running style.

Ingram has maintained the lion’s share of carries and gotten the occasional screen pass out of the backfield. However, within the last half of play or so, David Johnson has improved his yards per carry and pass catching competence. When the Texans fell behind against the Panthers last Thursday night, Johnson saw more time and was occasionally split out wide as a receiver. Week Three was the first time Johnson recorded more snaps than Ingram. It’s less of a changing of the guard and more of a situational circumstance based on the context of the game.

Lindsay has yet to catch the ire of the fan base, but as a first down back, he has struggled to find gaps in opposing defenses. It’s obvious he’s not adapting to his first time playing outside of Colorado. Lindsay has been slightly better through the air, but the lack of ground success will keep him off the field for all three downs.

Then there’s the unique case of Rex Burkhead. When the Texans signed the former Patriots running back, it signaled that there still appeared to be a deficit at the position even when outsiders believed the position group was crowded enough. Burkhead has helped in blitz pickup and has caught the occasional safety pass out of the backfield. Don’t expect him to return to glory or prominence anytime soon based on his current role.

If anyone were to break out later in the season, it should be David Johnson. Ingram’s carry total has already began to wane, and if Lindsay or Burkhead aren’t able to sufficiently move the ball on first down, Johnson will be reinstated as Houston’s primary back.

If there ever will be a team to deploy the wishbone offense of old, it would be this Texans offense. Three post-featured backs with different skill sets and a quarterback who, when healthy, is as evasive as any. Obviously this won’t happen, but damn it would be fun to see in a red zone situation.

The team has yet to find a suitable running back since Arian Foster’s poetry in motion stopped. All they have right now is four horsemen on their last ride.