Rex Burkhead, Houston Texans' running game break through to aid rookie QB Davis Mills

HOUSTON -- For much of the season, coach David Culley has been stressing that if the Houston Texans can figure out how to have a more efficient running game, it would be a huge benefit to rookie quarterback Davis Mills.

That finally showed up Sunday in the Texans’ 41-29 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, when Houston (4-11) finished with a season-high 189 rushing yards in a game they were without three starters on the offensive line because of COVID-19 protocols. The Texans were led by running back Rex Burkhead, who had a career-high 149 yards and two touchdowns.

“We knew today going into this game we had to control the ball against this football team because you give the ball back to this team so much, they are very explosive,” Culley said.

Yes, the Texans were playing against a Chargers team that came into the game ranked 29th against the run, but running for 100 or more yards is something Houston had done only once since the season opener. Culley said “all day long, we were able to run the ball and get positive yardage.”

Burkhead, who entered Sunday with 207 rushing yards this season, nearly doubled that against the Chargers. Burkhead’s 95 yards after contact were the second most by a Texans player since ESPN began tracking YAC in 2006. Houston’s 119 YAC as a team was their fourth most in a game since 2006. Burkhead’s 149 yards were the most by a Texans player since Carlos Hyde had 160 rushing yards in Week 9 of the 2019 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“He's been Mr. Consistent for us,” Culley said. “He's a guy that's going to get north and south. He knows how to play. … What happened today is we got him on the perimeter and our receivers and tight ends made some blocks for him. Of course, he made some guys miss and he took it in the end zone, just like you would expect him to do with the situation he had in front of him.”

Mills gave credit to the Texans’ ground game for the balance the Houston offense was finally able to find. After the game, Mills said he wanted to make sure Burkhead got the game ball, so he asked a staff member to make sure it was delivered to the veteran running back.

“He played extremely well today,” Mills said. “Ran hard all day. Two touchdowns, almost 150 yards. Love to see it. It kind of goes to show, though, that the offensive line played extremely well today as well, protecting me back there when I was throwing but also protected Rex and the other backs.”

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mills finished 10-of-13 with 189 of his 254 passing yards and a touchdown when he took longer than 2.5 seconds to pass. That was the highest completion percentage (76.9) on those throws by a Houston quarterback this season and the highest completion percentage allowed by the Chargers on those throws.

“I think when you're able to balance the play calls and really be effective in both the run and pass game it opens a lot up,” Mills said. “It keeps the defense guessing. And it keeps you out of third and longs. ... When you have a run game like we did this week, it helps a lot.”

The Texans were without running back David Johnson, who did not practice in the week leading up to the game because of a quadriceps injury. Houston has had a rotating group of running backs this season, trading Mark Ingram II to the New Orleans Saints, waiving Phillip Lindsay and losing Scottie Phillips to injury, but Burkhead has found himself as the team’s lead back.

Now, the Texans end their season facing two teams ranked in the top half of the NFL in run defense, including the Tennessee Titans, who are allowing an average of 86.7 rushing yards per game, which is the second best in the league.

Still, Burkhead said he was happy to see the group have a breakthrough game.

“We've been working our tails off in the run game, trying to improve that area for sure,” Burkhead said. “And we took that as a challenge. The guys up front took it as a challenge, whether it was the linemen, the tight ends and the coaches of course, as well.

“We knew as long as we executed, we could have a day like we did today, and fortunately for us, we did that.”