Pa Ben Arthur
By FOX Sports AFC South

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – To understand how Texans finally won the game, start free Damon Pierce.

Houston faced a 2nd-and-5 near the red zone late in the final quarter, and the rookie fourth-rounder’s punt return put the team on its back. Literally. He broke six or seven tackles en route to a monster 20-yard run that put the Texans within two yards of the end zone.

Almost everyone Jacksonville Jaguars the quarterback got a crack at Pierce and failed. It was a run where he seemed to gain strength with every body thrust. A run that left the press box speechless and the crowd stunned at TIAA Bank Field.

Two plays later — two more Pierce passes later — put the Texans in the end zone and their defense held on for the final three minutes as Houston ran away from Jacksonville with a 13-6 victory on Sunday.

The win gave the Texans (1-3-1) their ninth straight victory over the division rival Jaguars (2-3), who dropped to second in the AFC South with the Titans’ (3-2) victory in Washington.

Houston hasn’t lost to Jacksonville since December 2017.

“What I really felt was, at first, I was tired,” Pierce said with a laugh about his run. “But after I got a little bit of a breather, man, it was like we just needed a surge. We were just looking for someone to play … We were gathering a drive, but we didn’t quite finish them and punish them, and play our type of football. We’re back to playing our style of football.”

Pierce’s amazing run was made possible by a sharp decision by the Jaguars quarterback Travon Walker, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He knocked down a Texas quarterback Davis Mills on dead play, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty. That gave Jacksonville a first down in plus territory at the 38-yard line.

Pierce made four straight carries to end the scoring drive.

“Coach likes us to run to the ball when something happens. So I run. I see him breaking tackles,” the Texans right guard AJ Cann said of Pierce’s 20-yard run. “I’m like, ‘Oh shit! He is coming! … That’s the kind of running back he is. We like it. We like that physicality.”

Fans never got to see the full experience of Pierce at the University of Florida, where he spent four seasons. He was part of the backfield rotation in former Gators coach Dan Mullen’s offense. His single-season rushing total of 574 yards was accomplished his senior season. His college tape didn’t scream “Bonafide No. 1 running back.”

The Beast’s draft guide from The Athletic, which relies on insights from NFL scouts and coaches, says Pierce “doesn’t have the resume of a big-time caller or playmaker,” but also notes that he has a 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 yards and a touchdown. His performance Sunday followed his 14-carry, 131-yard effort against the Chargers last week. He has 86 catches for 412 yards and three scores on the season. According to the Pro Football Network, his 412 yards through the first five weeks of the season is a franchise record for a rookie.

According to Next Generation Stats, Pierce faced at least seven defenders in the box on 22 of 26 shots, tying the most such carries in a game this season. He has a plus-95 rushing yards this season, more than expected, the most by a rookie in Week 5 since 2019.

“He does what a (No. 1) running back in the NFL is supposed to do, and on a day like today, we needed to lean on the run, and I thought he was great,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “It’s only fitting that when we needed a play like that, he was the one who showed up.”

However, it wasn’t just about Pierce in the Texans’ first win of the season.

It was also about the defense shutting down one of the best offenses in the league, which entered Sunday ranked sixth in scoring at 26.3 points per game.

Great rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, was selected Trevor Lawrence in the end zone on the Jaguars’ opening drive of the second half. Jacksonville and Houston came up big in the fourth where they held Jacksonville to 0-for-3. Two of those stops were within four yards of the stick. linebacker Christian Kirksey and defensive means Malik Collins stuffed jaguars run back James Robinson no gain on 4th-and-1 at the Houston 38 with 12:38 left. That stop came because of a Texans defense that entered the game ranked second in run defense, allowing 172 yards rushing 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) ran quite a bit, and a lot of those passes that were incomplete had a little bit to do with some pressure,” Smith said of the defensive line’s play. “It’s about hustle and coverage, especially today. It’s a tough call for our defensive line today because we didn’t shine a lot. So when the offense almost knows it’s four people, you can team up with those four guys, but they struggled a lot.”

Thanks to the efforts of Pierce and the defense, the Texans lost their status as the NFL’s only winless team.

Smith, with his first win as Houston’s coach, now wants more.

“It’s big because I know how hard it is,” Smith said of winning in the NFL. “We fought for four weeks and could not finish it. That’s all we talked about. I know how the guys reacted backstage.

“But now that we’ve taken care of it,” he added, “I just really want to get that second win.”

Ben Arthur is an AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked at The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was a feature writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) before moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.


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