But after the Texans (1-2) fell 24-9 in a loss to the Carolina Panthers (3-0), Culley said he “felt like we kind of went too far with trying to protect” Mills in his first NFL start.
Mills was inconsistent on Thursday, and his best drive came just before halftime and resulted in Houston’s lone touchdown on the night. Mills completed 19 of 28 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown.
Culley said he was focused on making sure Mills didn’t feel like he had to win the game by himself and make a throw that would get him in trouble.
“We didn’t want to put him in a situation where he felt like he needed to try and make a play on his own,” Culley said.
Wide receiver Brandin Cooks said Mills' "leadership really stood out" as the Texans prepared for the short week.
“I have seen a lot of growth, just even throughout the practice week with a short week, the way that he took command and got us receivers after practice on a short week to still go over stuff," Cooks said.
Mills succeeded in an area that Culley and offensive coordinator Tim Kelly stressed going into the game: taking care of the football. During the preseason, Mills completed 48% of his passes and threw four interceptions in 65 attempts.
“What we did find out coming out of this game is that he can handle a lot more than what we felt like, because of the way he handled himself in this ballgame,” Culley said. “Moving forward, we’ll just get back to doing the things that we had started doing in that first game and a half when Tyrod (Taylor) was our starting quarterback.”
Mills wasn’t helped by the Texans running game, which struggled to find any consistency against a talented Panthers front seven. Culley said the Texans tried to re-establish the run to start the second half down just 7-6 with the ball, but it didn’t work. Running backs Mark Ingram II, David Johnson and Phillip Lindsay finished the game with a combined 37 rushing yards on 15 carries.
Still, after watching the film, Culley said he thought the struggles on the ground were self-inflicted.
“We were the enemy and not them,” Culley said. “In other words, we did not execute some things that we had been executing previously. We got to make some calls that we didn’t get made during that ballgame that put us in some situations that put us behind the chains. We hadn’t been doing that.
"We just got to go back and correct those mistakes, and I feel like we’ll be back on track because we made a few more this game than we had in the previous two.”
Mills now has 10 days between starts, as Taylor is on injured reserve with a left hamstring injury and cannot come back until Week 6 in Indianapolis. As the Texans get ready to hit the road to face the Buffalo Bills, Culley said the Texans know how they are built to win games, and it wasn't the way they played on Thursday.
“We got behind the chains,” Culley said. “We had more second-and-longs than we’ve had before because we weren’t able to get started off with the run game very well. And then when we were above the chains, then we end up having some mistakes that put us back behind the chains.
“We’re not a football team that can play from behind the chains.”