By Ben Arthur
FOX Sports AFC South Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — To understand how the Texans finally won a game, start with the will of Dameon Pierce.
With Houston facing a second-and-5 just outside the red zone late in the final quarter, the fourth-round rookie running back put the team on his back. Literally. He broke six or seven tackles en route to a monster 20-yard run that set up the Texans two yards from the end zone.
Nearly every Jacksonville Jaguars defender had a crack at Pierce and failed. It was a run where he seemed to gain strength with each body blow. A run that left the press box speechless, the crowd stunned at TIAA Bank Field.
Two plays later — two more Pierce handoffs later — the Texans reached the end zone, and their defense held on for the final three minutes for Houston to escape Jacksonville with a 13-6 victory Sunday.
With the win, the Texans (1-3-1) posted their ninth straight victory over the divisional rival Jaguars (2-3), who dropped to second in the AFC South with the Titans (3-2) winning at Washington.
Houston hasn’t lost to Jacksonville since December 2017.
“What I really felt, I was tired at first,” a laughing Pierce said of his run. “But after I caught my breath a little bit, man, like we just needed a surge. We were just looking for somebody to make a play … We were putting together a drive, but we weren’t quite finishing them and punishing them and playing our type of football. We got back to playing our style of football.”
Pierce’s magnificent run was made possible by a poor decision by Jaguars outside linebacker Travon Walker, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He took down Texans quarterback Davis Mills on a dead play, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty. That gave Jacksonville a first down in plus territory at the 38-yard line.
Pierce took four straight carries to cap the scoring drive.
“Coach likes for us to run to the ball in case something happens. So I’m running. I see him breaking tackles,” Texans right guard AJ Cann said of Pierce’s 20-yard run. “I’m like, ‘Oh, s–t! He’s going!’ … That’s the kind of running back he is. We like that. We like that physicality.”
Fans never saw the full Pierce experience at the University of Florida, where he spent four seasons. He was part of a backfield rotation in former Gators coach Dan Mullen’s spread offense. His single-season rushing high was 574 yards, reached his senior season. His college tape didn’t scream “bona fide No. 1 running back.”
The Athletic’s The Beast draft guide, which relies on the insight of NFL scouts and coaches, said Pierce “doesn’t have the résumé of a bell-cow back or big-play creator” — but also noted he has the chance to be a better pro than college player.
The latter, it turns out, was a foreshadowing.
Pierce had 26 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars, his third straight game of at least 80 rushing yards and a touchdown. His performance Sunday followed his 14-carry, 131-yard effort against the Chargers last week. He’s up to 86 carries for 412 yards and three scores on the season.
Pierce’s 412 rushing yards through the first five weeks of the season is a franchise record by a rookie, according to the Pro Football Network.
According to Next Gen Stats, Pierce faced at least seven defenders in the box on 22 of his 26 rushes, tied for the most such carries in a game this season. He has gained plus-95 rushing yards over expected this season, the most by a rookie through Week 5 since 2019.
“He’s doing what a (No. 1) running back in the NFL should do, and on a day like today we needed to lean on the run, and I thought he was outstanding,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “It’s fitting that when we needed a play like that, he would be the one that showed up.”
It wasn’t just about Pierce in the Texans’ first victory of the season, though.
It was also about the defense clamping down on one of the better offenses in the league, one that entered Sunday sixth in scoring at 26.3 points per game.
Standout rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, picked off Trevor Lawrence in the end zone on the Jaguars’ opening drive of the second half.
Houston came up big on fourth down, where it held Jacksonville to 0-for-3. Two of those stops came within four yards of sticks. Linebacker Christian Kirksey and defensive tackle Maliek Collins stuffed Jaguars running back James Robinson for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Houston 38 with 12:38 left. That stop came from a Texans’ defense that entered the game ranked second-worst in run defense, allowing 172 rushing yards per contest.
The Jaguars were also held to 0-for-3 in the red zone. Lawrence completed 25 of 47 passes for 286 yards with two interceptions.
“I thought (Lawrence) was on the run quite a bit, and a lot of those passes that were incomplete had a little bit to do with some of the pressure,” Smith said of the defensive line’s performance. “It’s about rush and coverage, especially today. It’s tough duty for our defensive line today because we weren’t blitzing a lot. So, when the offense pretty much knows it’s a four-man roster, you can gang up on those four guys , but they fought hard.”
With the efforts by Pierce and the defense, the Texans have shed the label as the NFL’s only winless team.
Smith, with his first win as Houston’s coach under his belt, wants more now.
“It’s big because I know how hard it is,” Smith said of winning in the NFL. “We’ve been battling for four weeks and haven’t been able to finish it. That’s all we’ve talked about. I know how the guys have been responding behind the scenes.
“But now that we have taken care of that,” he added, “I’m just anxious to get that second win now.”
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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