I have brotherly feelings towards Jacksonville, that city across the gulf. As a fan of the Houston football playing franchise, the Jaguars have been the backdrop for many lovely memories. The first and only Texans game I went was was against Jacksonville. I drank two Miler Lites in the parking lot and was tired by the second quarter. Maurice Jones-Drew scored a touchdown in the endzone we resided behind. Everyone around me scrambled over their chairs to give him the middle finger. I was 18. I thought that was really cool. Chris Brown, Houston’s ‘goal line’ back, a mole from Tennessee, fumbled into the other endzone. Game over. This is the Houston Texans football.
Glover Quin’s knockdown continued to remind us that life isn’t fair, and something isn’t over until it’s finally over. Andre Johnson’s game winning screen pass to finish off the last great game of both his and Matt Schaub’s career came in a duel against Chad Henne and Jacksonville. They ended the [NAME REDACTED] era, a game I listened to on the radio on the drive back from Memphis, gray skies, hungover and heart leaping. Sackonville crushed Tom Savage, which led to Bill O’Brien immediately ending his love affair with miserable quarterbacks he could never coach up, and gave Deshaun Watson his first taste. There have been six spectacular DeAndre Hopkins v. Jalen Ramsey matchups. And seeing Watson used as a runner to clinch the AFC South title last year was a swell time.
This time, for this game, I just want everyone to stay healthy, try their hardest, give it their all, so we can see who the best team really is brother.
1.) Gardner Vishnu
Gardner takes the field in a variety of different forms. He’s a monstrous fanged boar carrying the Earth on its tusks, a colossal tortoise carrying mountains on his back, a spectacular fish with golden scales, a man-lion with a necklace made of entrails, and last Sunday, the cosmic protector of order, kept things together as a mustached backup quarterback once Nick Foles went down.
The Jaguars bet on 2018 being an aberration, and that 2017 was the true indication of their talent level. 10-6. An all time great passing defense. Losing to the Patriots. They gave Nick Foles $50.125 million guaranteed, and most importantly, he has a cap hit of only $12 million this season. Jacksonville is able to keep their demonic defense together, get a bump in quarterback play, try to replicate the past like two ex-lovers before the summer ends and Foles’s contract craters their ability to build a complete roster.
That was the plan. Then Chris Jones rallied around right guard A.J. Cann and hit Foles high at the end of his throwing motion. A beautiful throw up to D.J. Chark became devastating.
That was the end of that. Until week eleven probably. Foles and his smashed clavicle were out, Gardner was in, and it was up to the sixth round pick to keep things together. As a replacement, he was more than competent. He completed 22 of his 25 pass attempts for 275 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception on a screen pass. This wasn’t all dink and dunk David Carr either. Gardner averaged 11 yards an attempt, completed all 5 of his passes that traveled at least 10 yards through the air for 156 yards and 1 touchdown. Take a look at this. Pretty cool right?
Most of his time was spent attacking the middle part of the field. This aligns with previous iterations of Jacksonville’s offense through the air. Throw out of shotgun. Spread it out. Use Chris Conley, Dede Westbrook, and Marqise Lee on quick drags and slants to the center of the field. His game also wasn’t composed of open throws against soft zone coverage in a blow out. He displayed spectacular ball placement throughout this one.
Gardner pushed the ball down field when he needed to. These targets primarily went to Chark. The former LSU receiver was an interesting deep threat prospect after making the occasional go up and get it snag last season, and has shown he’s a legitimate ball player already this season. Chark caught a bomb from both Foles and Vishnu last week.
Romeo Crennel typically slaughters rookie quarterbacks. In the past they’ve been brutalized by Houston’s pass rush and goaded into mistakes once they turn purple. This may not happen this week. Vishnu and the Jaguars’ passing attack aligns exactly with what Houston showed they are unable to do, cover the center of the field.
Now, he isn’t Brees, and the Jaguars trio of receivers isn’t Jared Cook, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Tedd Ginn Jr., but you get the point. Without a competent slot corner, inside linebackers who have had trouble in man coverage, and even Tashaun Gipson getting torched last week, it looks like the Jags have the chance to somewhat replicate what happened last week.
2.) I Still Exist
J.J. Watt didn’t exist last week. He had one pressure and drew one holding penalty. That’s it. For the first time in his career he failed to register a tackle, and he couldn’t muster a quarterback hit or a sack. He was locked down by Ryan Ramcyzk who put on a classic display of how to time punches against a pass rusher who couldn’t beat him to the point of attack. At times Houston did loop him to the center, but when using a three man rush this led to exasperated rushes against double teams. Watt couldn’t get anything going.
This week he and Whitney Mercilus should be able to. The Jaguars’ offensive line is good with the potential to be great. Andrew Norwell already looks better than he did last season, and Brandon Linder, one of the best centers in football, is healthy and back out there. A.J. Cann is the worst offensive lineman they have and is an interior weakness they should look to exploit with Watt. If they don’t, even Angelo Blackson maybe able to crush the pocket like some novelty cigarette turned minty every once in a while.
Watt and Mercilus will primarily rush from the edge. Cam Robinson is still out with a knee injury. On the left side it’s former midround pick Will Richardson, and rookie right tackle Jawaan Taylor is on the right side. Taylor gave up one sack, and was called for two holding penalties, one of which was dubious, but overall both players played well last week. The Jags’ offensive line allowed only five pressures, and the Chiefs had a pressure rate of 14.3%. Chris Jones was the only player with multiple hurries against them, and Emmanuel Ogbah was the only one who picked up a sack against them.
Playing against Watt and Mercilus will be tougher than blocking Ogbah and Frank Clark. After having a quiet game last week, Watt should be back to doing what he does best, destroying average offensive linemen. This won’t be another week where he puts up zeros across the board.
The Texans are going to rely on them to get pressure, because once again, this defense depends on pressure to make up for their coverage. After releasing Aaron Colvin, they’ll have to shake the box up, and figure out how to defend the center of the field. This will mean Lonnie Johnson playing somewhere, hopefully on the outside, and Bradley Roby moving to the slot. Who knows what they’ll do. Watt and Mercilus providing constant pressure will make this problem matter less.
3.) What’s Real?
One of the things that makes football great, and a very sad thing, is how quickly things change. Incredible units and position groups you love fall apart in a year, and the spectacular are merely comets, not long lasting sources of inspiration and wonder. This also creates a game composed of parity and novelty. It’s always fresh and everchanging.
Some strange things happened last week. The Jaguars’ have the worst DVOA in football after the Chiefs put up 40 against them. Sammy Watkins broke tackles, beat Ramsey in man coverage, and was pretty much uncoverable. This was similar to last season when the Chiefs put up an easy 30 on the Jaguars. This is either an outlier, the result of the Chiefs’ offense being unconquerable, or the Jaguars’ pass defense is bleeding.
The Jaguars didn’t tackle well. They missed 11 tackles last week and have the highest missed tackle rate in football right now.
The Chiefs forced Myles Jack to carry the seam and defend the middle of the field. He couldn’t do it. He allowed 90 yards when targeted in pass coverage.
A.J. Bouye looked timid, and slower, after a timid and slower 2018. Travis Kelce could get whatever he wanted to against him. He allowed 3 catches on 6 targets for 79 yards. That hip is still wailing.
The past two seasons the Chiefs finished 32nd in run defense DVOA, a weakness that also knocked them out of the postseason in both those seasons. The Jaguars couldn’t get anything on the ground against the Chiefs new 4-3 defense. Jacksonville wants to run power, and counter, and inside zone, get vertical, limit the quarterback, and have Leonard Fournette carry them. Last week, however, Fournette had 66 yards on 13 carries, and was constrained throughout most of the game.
Fournette did look quicker than he did last season. After seeing his broken tackle total drop from 55 to 17 it was fun to see him shifty and making defenders miss again. They even used him in the screen game to break some tackles and pick up a first.
This is important for the Jags’ offense as well. Houston was one of the worst tackling teams last season and had a broken tackle rate of 11.5%. They missed nine tackles against the Saints last week.
It’s still early. No one knows if the Jags’ pass defense is on the downturn, or if the Chiefs’ run defense is good now, or if the Jags’ were too predictable on their first few drives last weekend. Another weekend will make this swampy Jacksonville bog water slightly clearer. But for now, entering this game, from my Taco Bell window, it’s reasonable to expect Houston to be able to move the ball through the air against the Jaguars, and for Fournette to have problems moving the ball against Houston’s dominant run defense.
4.) It Takes A Village
The Texans were unable to generate pressure on their end, but left Deshaun Watson destroyed on the other end. Against a fine, not great, Saints’ pass rush, Watson was hit eleven times and sacked six times. The Saints pressured Watson on 47.4% of his dropbacks. Despite adding Laremy Tunsil, the Texans’ pass protection was still horrendous. New Orleans was able to create tons of pressure by matching up Cameron Jordan against Seantrel Henderson, and running a variety of stunts, and second and third level blitzes to create open rushes for their defenders. It takes a village to raise a child and protect a quarterback.
The Jaguars will be without Yannick Ngakoue in this game. With him on the field last week they were able to get close to Patrick Mahomes, but they weren’t able to get to him quick enough to create meaningful rushes. They hit him only three times and didn’t officially sack him once.
Without Ngakoue, they’ll have to shift things around. Calais Campbell may move outside to replace him, which would place him and Josh Allen on the outside and Taven Bryan, Arby’s (Abry) Jones, and Marcel Dareus swishing around on the interior. Or they may do what they did last week, and keep Campbell and Allen on the right side together anyways.
However they do this will be meaningful. There are weaknesses along Houston’s front seven. Whoever rushes over the center should be able to collapse the pocket against Nick Martin. Campbell could rush against either Tytus Howard or Senio Kelemete if they leave him on the interior, and it will be wild to see if he can use his hands and strength successfully against Laremy Tunsil. Josh Allen is the real deal, and as a speed rusher, he’d be a better matchup against Tunsil than Campbell is. The key for Jacksonville is to create pressure from the right side. Whoever they leave against Seantrel Henderson has to win that matchup play after play and sling rocks at Deshaun Watson. I’d expect for Allen to be given this task, and for him to carry it out successfully.
The Jags primarily rush four, and will sometimes bet it all and bring six. Even though they are one of the heaviest four man rushing teams around, they do so in creative ways. It isn’t all missionary beat the man in front of you. They are effective at running stunts to create lanes, and Campbell is one of the best players in the league at creating for others. Additionally, the blitzes should be turned down a bit. There are concerns with two green safeties who missed tackles last week, and the Texans finally have speedy receivers and running backs who can break it off on their own. Getting pressure with four alone is how Jacksonville should try and attack Houston.
5.) The Heavyweight Fight
Since Jalen Ramsey has been in the league, DeAndre Hopkins has caught 39 of his 83 targets (47%) for 467 yards against Jacksonville. Ramsey has defended three passes in coverage against Hopkins and tackled him 19 times. The majority of the time it’s Texans v. Jags it’s Hopkins v. Ramsey. The NFL is about matchups, says the professional football writing man on my television and in my phone, and Hopkins v. Ramsey is one of the premier ones in the league.
Ramsey previously had the upper hand in this matchup, then things changed last season. Hopkins caught 15 of his 24 targets for 197 yards against the Jags, including a touchdown and 9 other first downs. He did things like beat him off the line of scrimmage in press coverage and snag a pass with an outstretched left arm reaching for Adam.
Hopkins ran away from his press coverage and turned back for the ball.
Slapaway a jam at the line of scrimmage and catch a slant for a touchdown.
He even simply sprinted past Ramsey Andre Johnson style for a deep completion.
Recently Ramsey described Hopkins as uncoverable. Jalen agrees with the rest of the NFL zeitgeist, Hopkins is the best receiver in the league. Enjoy this matchup and savor it. We get only two of these a year. It’s one of the premier receiver v. cornerback matchups in the league, and it’s my personal favorite.
6.) It’s The AFC South Y’all
Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them.