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HOUSTON – The Houston Texans dared the Buffalo Bills to beat them with the pass Sunday. The Bills were not up to the challenge.

The Bills could not get their dynamic running back duo involved in the game, could not hit pass plays down field and never got into the end zone in losing to the Texans, 21-9.

The result wasted an improved performance by the Buffalo defense, which kept Houston 10 points under its season average. It dropped the Bills to a disappointing 3-5 at the halfway point of the season.

Houston made the unconventional decision to keep its regular defense – three down linemen and four linebackers – on the field when the Bills used three wide receivers. Houston even used it some of the time when the Bills split a running back out wide and kept the backfield empty.

“We knew they were going to spread out,” Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “We wanted to give them a different look they hadn’t seen. We didn’t want to let them run the football. They are averaging 150 yards a game rushing and 24 points a game. We felt like if you let those backs get the ball and get going with it … we had to stop the running game.”

The Bills opted not to run C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson into the teeth of Houston’s fourth-ranked run defense.

Buffalo called 44 pass plays and just 13 runs. Spiller carried six times for 39 yards. Jackson carried six for 21.

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick should have been able to hit his wide receivers, who consistently saw one-on-one coverage.

But Stevie Johnson was slowed by a blow to the thigh 12 minutes into the game. He had just three catches for 29 yards and had a crucial drop in the second half.

The Bills’ other wideouts could not make a big play. Donald Jones had six catches for 65 yards. T.J. Graham had two catches for 4 yards.

“They were playing seven big guys in the box against our three-wide sets,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “You’re trying to run ’em out of that. You’re trying to throw the football to run ’em out of it. We weren’t able to do it. We had some passes that were dropped at times. We had some mistimed penalties and it cost us offensively.”

“It’s a tough situation to be in,” Jackson said. “We feel like if they play a regular defense, we should have some matchups that we want to take advantage of. You’ve got to give them credit. Their defense played well today. They took away what we wanted to get done, and we didn’t make enough plays.”

Fitzpatrick completed 25-of-38 passes for 239 yards. He didn’t throw any interceptions, but his yards per attempt was a measly 6.2. Fitzpatrick’s season average of 6.58 yards per attempt entering the game was 27th in the league. Despite the man coverage, there were almost no attempts to stretch the field. Fitzpatrick took two deep shots in the second half for Johnson. He hit tight end Scott Chandler on a 27-yard seam pattern down the middle of the field. That was it.

“I think we’re better underneath,” Gailey said. “I think that’s what our guys do better, so you try to let ’em do what they do best. But to keep people honest, you do have to throw it down the field. We try to throw a few, just enough to keep ’em honest.”

Johnson played most of the game but did not look full strength.

“He got hit on the thigh and he kept trying it and trying it and trying it, but there at the end he just couldn’t go,” Gailey said.

Johnson had a key drop midway through the third quarter with the Bills down, 14-6. On a third-and-2 play from the Houston 21, the Bills lined up in a run formation, with fullback Corey McIntyre on the field. Houston had eight men near the line to stop the run. Fitzpatrick threw a quick slant to the left. It wasn’t a perfect throw but it was good enough. Johnson couldn’t hang on. The Bills had to settle for a field goal to make it 14-9.

“They were all up in there,” Fitzpatrick said of the Texans’ run defenders. “That was the play, and it just didn’t work out.”

The Texans also timed their blitzes well – they sent at least nine blitzes at Fitzpatrick – to keep the QB from waiting for routes to develop.

A key play came on second and 13 from the Houston 15 in the second quarter. Johnson lined up in the backfield, then went in motion into the slot. The Bills’ backfield was empty and Houston had a linebacker covering Johnson. Big mismatch. But the Texans rushed six men, and Fitzpatrick dumped his throw short to Jackson for a 4-yard gain.

“They made us [throw] hot,” Gailey said. “That’s a juke route [for Johnson], and it takes time for him to go work that guy, and they brought a zero [all-out] blitz.”

The Bills settled for a field goal again.

“They definitely blitzed a lot,” said guard Kraig Urbik. “When we were in empty and they were bringing five or six, you’ve got to get rid of the ball just because you only have five blockers.”

“We had a lot of stuff [in the game plan] we didn’t get to because of how they were playing us,” Fitzpatrick said. “When they play against us, the biggest thing is stop the run. Stop C.J., stop Fred and make ’em beat you with the pass. That’s what the Texans came into the game saying, and that’s what they did.”

The Bills’ 32nd-ranked run defense played well. Houston had just 78 yards rushing through three quarters and finished with 118, 22 under its season average. The Bills had been allowing 176 a game. Buffalo got good games from defensive linemen Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. The Texans were not able to run their bread-and-butter stretch plays.

“That was the main emphasis this week, their perimeter runs,” said defensive end Kyle Moore. “But once we stopped that, they had to try to cut back and get up the middle. Our tackles played a little bit tighter this week and they made the plays.”

Houston quarterback Matt Schaub completed 19-of-27 passes for 268 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson had eight catches for 118 yards.

Not many teams have the defensive talent to pressure the quarterback and execute the base-defense plan that Houston used.

“We knew coming in it’s a team that would put up points,” Jackson said. “I definitely felt like we left our defense short today.”

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com