HOUSTON — Dameon Pierce runs with an angry, violent style as a classic downhill-style running back who hits the hole decisively and attacks the defense with bad intentions.
The Texans’ punishing rookie displayed why he’s earning a reputation as a hard-nosed back with some wiggle in the open field during his preseason debut against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night at NRG Stadium.
“I tried to sprinkle a little bit of magic in there,” Pierce said inside the Texans’ locker room. “I don’t run with good intentions, to answer your question. I don’t be angry, just real passionate about what I do.”
Pierce smacked his chest to show how emotional he felt waiting for his turn. Over the past 24 hours, Pierce said that his feelings ran the gamut because there was so much anticipation building inside him.
“I got my thoughts together and did what I’ve been doing my whole life, just playing ball, just try to have fun with it,” said Pierce, who got advice from veteran running back Rex Burkhead on how to calm down. “Man, if ya’ll only knew what these last 24 hours were like for me. My head was racing. I’ve been jittery since last night. As the game got closer, I started letting loose. I started relaxing.”
Pierce puts power and agility on display in Texans’ preseason opener
Pierce cut back and ran through an arm tackle by a 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle to bust into the secondary for a 20-yard run. Capable of bouncing off tacklers and maintaining his balance after the initial hit, Pierce rushed for 49 yards on five carries, averaging 9.8 yards per run.
“Dameon Pierce definitely caught my eye,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “He’s a good football player. He can run with power. He can cut on a dime. He can do something that you expect a good running back in the NFL to do. That was big for him.”
Smith was asked what it will take for Pierce to earn the starting job but emphasized that it’s premature to make that determination.
“Dameon has been impressive in practice,” Smith said. “We expected him to do some of the things that he did. It’s safe to say we like Dameon a lot.”
Drafted in the fourth round out of Florida as the seventh running back selected overall in 2022, Pierce showed off his cutting skills, explosiveness, and power as he competes with veteran Marlon Mack for the starting job to revitalize a dormant Houston running game that ranked last in the NFL last season.
“Dameon Pierce, if you’re in his way, he’s going to run you over,” Texans rookie safety Jalen Pitre said days before kickoff. “That’s the one tidbit I can give you about him.”
Pierce once scored a touchdown for the Gators after getting his helmet knocked off. At the Senior Bowl all-star game, Pierce literally made a lot of noise with how much contact he generated against blitzing linebackers in pass protection drills.
“I took bits and pieces of everybody’s game and molded it to my own style, which is violent,” Pierce said. “I like to fight for my yards. I like to punish the defense. I don’t like taking hits. I like giving hits.”
He’s a tough guy who also hustled through traffic to make the tackle after an interception by quarterback Jeff Driskel on a pass that was intended for him downfield.
“Man, that’s hustle and trying to make the best of a bad situation,” Pierce said. “You never want to turn the ball over.”
Pierce rushed for 574 yards and 13 touchdowns last season as he averaged 5.7 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns. As a junior, he rushed for 503 yards and four touchdowns and caught 17 passes for 156 yards and one score.
Now, Pierce is off to a fast start at the NFL level.
“My progress is not only a testament to me, but I think our whole running back room, they really took me in,” Pierce said. “I’m the youngest guy in there. They’ve really been treating me like a little brother. I know I’m going to aggravate them because I’m asking questions. They don’t mind answering. They just laugh and they get me right. They’re taking care of me. As long as I got them in my back pocket, I feel like I’m going to be all right.”
Pierce has run the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds with a 34 1/2 inch vertical leap and bench pressed 225 pounds 21 times. The Georgia native rushed for 6,779 yards and scored 92 touchdowns in high school.
“He plays with a lot of joy,” Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. “He plays with a lot of fight. He plays with a lot of toughness, and his personality, I would say, transfers over to the football field.”
Mack sees limited opportunities as RB battle heats up in Houston
Mack, who tore his Achilles two seasons ago and has emphasized he now trusts his surgically repaired leg, didn’t get to show much in two drives as he rushed for six yards on three carries. Mack didn’t appear hesitant, but he didn’t have a lot of opportunities in this first preseason game. Clearly, he wasn’t nearly as impressive as Pierce.
A former 1,000-yard rusher with the Indianapolis Colts supplanted by Pro Bowl runner Jonathan Taylor, Mack has expressed confidence in his leg. He’s had his moments during practice sessions, showing off his speed.
“I definitely feel like I’m there again,” Mack said recently. “Last year, I didn’t get that chance to show myself. But in the few games that I did, I felt that confidence in myself. But now, I’ve actually just got to go out there and do it again. I feel good, man.
“Every day I’m showing that explosion. I feel it in my cuts, and every day I keep going out there and keep doing it. I feel like my trust has always been 100% since last year. Just always had that trust, just didn’t get the chance to show it again. But now, I’m actually going to keep on it, keep that trust in it.”
Mack has been mentoring Pierce, providing tips on how to run the football.
Inquisitive in nature, Pierce is listening to the veteran runner and running backs coach Danny Barrett and soaking up knowledge.
“He’s a hungry learner, so he always asked the questions, man, makes sure he’s always on point,” Mack said. “That’s why he’s picking up really well. That’s one thing you need as a young running back; ask questions, make sure you get everything from coaches, and just be well on yourself. And that’s what he’s doing.”
Jalen Pitre as advertised in NFL debut
Jalen Pitre adapted on the fly, showing the intelligence and instincts he’s demonstrated throughout training camp to earn an immediate starting job.
The Texans’ rookie safety made his NFL debut and had four tackles, including one for a loss, against the Saints. Pitre lined up all over the field for the Texans in his first preseason game. He tackled Saints running back Dwayne Washington for a loss of two yards and appeared to be gaining knowledge from snap to snap.
He was close to a potential interception of Saints quarterback Ian Book that was picked off by cornerback Tremon Smith instead.
“Jalen Pitre has been outstanding throughout camp,” Lovie Smith said. “Right now, I like what he’s done.’
Pitre made it clear days before kickoff that he still has a lot to learn.
“Yeah, I would say I’m still growing,” Pitre said. “I’m still understanding the playbook, understanding what offenses like to do in the NFL, and I love the game of football, so I love learning every day, and I feel like I’m doing that. I’m just continuing to go up. I feel like I haven’t really reached any plateau yet. I’ve got a long way to go.
“Coming in, I just wanted to make sure that I was confident from the start. I understand that I don’t know what I’m doing fresh off, and I think that when you approach something you’ve got to start with confidence in order to grasp the material and be able to go out there and make the plays when it’s needed. I try to approach everything with a confident mindset, and I think that’s helped me.”
The Texans are proceeding cautiously with rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. due to a previous foot surgery. Stingley didn’t play against the Saints. The Texans and Pitre envision him and Stingley forming a cornerstone in an overhauled secondary.
“Stingley, you know, he’s great,” Pitre said. “He’s a guy that I lean on when talking about different things that the offense is trying to do. I love playing with him and I love being out there with him. We’re always talking about what we’re about to get and I feel like me and him are going to be great together.”
Texans observations from win over Saints
- Texans starting quarterback Davis Mills appeared composed and poised, looking calmer than he did a year ago as a rookie starter when he went 2-9 in 11 starts and 13 games overall. Mills was playing without multiple starters and went three-and-out on two series before being replaced by Jeff Driskel. Mills completed 3 of 3 passes for 14 yards and an 86.1 passer rating. There were no real conclusions or revelations to be gleaned from his short appearance. He played fine with his usual sound mechanics. Situationally, the Texans’ offense just didn’t click. “I felt comfortable out there,” Mills said. “I would have liked to have had some longer drives. We shot ourselves in the foot a little bit tonight.”
- Cornerback and kickoff returner Tremon Smith was the first player that Texans general manager Nick Caserio signed to a contract extension during the season last year. Smith, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars, intercepted Saints quarterback Ian Book on an errant pass that was deflected and returned it 12 yards. Smith also effectively shadowed Saints wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith on a fade pass to the corner of the end zone, breaking up the throw to prevent a touchdown. Smith is the Texans’ primary kickoff returner and had one kickoff return for 25 yards. He had a 15-yard punt return.
- Defensive end Ogbo Okoronwko signed a one-year, $3.25 million deal with his hometown team after earning a Super Bowl ring with the Los Angeles Rams. The former Alief Taylor standout and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year from Oklahoma generated a lot of pressure and recorded one sack. Okoronkwo also disrupted the backfield enough to create opportunities for his teammates to get to the quarterback.
- Texans rookie defensive tackle Thomas Booker, a fifth-round draft pick from Stanford, has had a relatively quiet training camp. But he had a big game in his NFL debut with four tackles and one sack.
- Texans linebacker Blake Cashman finds the football fast. The former New York Jets starter is definitely instinctive. Cashman had eight tackles, one for a loss and a pass deflected.
- Texans rookie defensive tackle Kurt Hinish is making a strong impression on the coaching staff. Hinish, who received $85,000 guaranteed from the Texans after going undrafted out of Notre Dame, has drawn praise from Lovie Smith for his gritty style and strong technique. He reinforced why the Texans like his approach to the game, sacking Saints quarterback Ian Book, a former Fighting Irish teammate, for a loss of 11 yards.
- Texans backup quarterback Jeff Driskel played the majority of the game, completing 16 of 26 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted three times. Driskel, a former Denver Broncos starter whom the Texans shifted to tight end at one point before he broke his collarbone on special teams against the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, had one touchdown pass on a jump ball to 6-foot-2, 220-pound wide receiver Jalen Camp. On one of his interceptions, he threw into heavy traffic that was intended for Dameon Pierce. He had another interception on a pass intended for wide receiver Chad Beebe that was thrown behind him. Driskel rushed for 17 yards on three carries.
- Chris Moore and Phillip Dorsett, competing to be the primary slot receiver with rookie John Metchie III diagnosed with a form of leukemia and expected to miss the entire season, both had solid performances. Moore, who caught 21 passes on 22 targets and two touchdowns last season, caught both passes thrown to him for 25 yards. Dorsett, healthy again after missing time at the start of training camp, caught two passes for 18 yards on three targets.
Texans rest several starters
The Texans followed a conservative approach given this was the first preseason game, holding out several key players as a precautionary measure.
That included Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, star wide receiver Brandin Cooks, veteran center Justin Britt, running back Rex Burkhead, rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., defensive tackle Maliek Collins, defensive end Jerry Hughes, linebacker Christian Kirksey and defensive end Mario Addison.
The Texans also had multiple injured players miss the game, along with backup quarterback Kyle Allen, who was out after testing positive for COVID, per league sources. Allen is expected to return early next week.
Players who didn’t play due to injuries included rookie offensive guard and first-round draft pick Kenyon Green (knee), tight end Antony Auclair (sprained right knee), wide receiver Drew Estrada (leg), wide receiver Chester Rogers (ankle), tight end Teagan Quitoriano (knee), linebackers Garret Wallow (sprained ankle) and Christian Harris (hamstring) and corner Kendall Sheffield.
Texans coach Lovie Smith said there were no major injuries.
- Jameis Winston was sidelined with a foot injury that’s not regarded as a long-term injury. Starting in his place, veteran backup Andy Dalton ran the offense smoothly. He completed all five of his throws for 51 yards with one touchdown pass on a screen pass to running back Dwayne Washington.
- Ian Book had a rough night. He was under a lot of duress as he was sacked four times. Book completed 9 of 15 passes for 56 yards for a 39.8 passer rating. He was intercepted once by cornerback Tremon Smith.
- The Saints are bracing for a potential suspension of Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara due to an arrest in Las Vegas stemming from a violent nightclub altercation. The Saints are looking for someone to step up in the backfield. They rested veteran running back Mark Ingram, who’s a proven runner. Dwayne Washington did a nice job catching passes out of the backfield with three receptions on three targets for one touchdown and 18 yards. He rushed for 19 yards on nine carries.
- Running back Tony Jones Jr. ran hard, gaining 27 yards on seven carries. Jones, a powerful back at 5-foot-11, 224 pounds, also had two kickoff returns for 50 yards.
- Saints linebacker Chase Hansen joined the roster this week. He made the most out of his opportunity, piling up six tackles with two for losses and one interception.