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Behind Enemy Lines: Texans vs. Jaguars

We meet with Ryan O’Bleness of Big Cat Country.

Houston Texans v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The 0-3-1 Houston Texans are traveling to Jacksonville to take on the 2-2 Jacksonville Jaguars. However, the Texans are bringing an eight game winning streak into enemy territory for this AFC South battle. However, these are not your older brother’s Jaguars. They sit on top of the AFC South with the Tennessee Titans. That’s where we started our conversation with Ryan O’Bleness of Big Cat Country.

The Jags are tied for first in the division and have looked better than any other team in the division. In your estimation, what is the biggest difference between this year and last year?

The biggest reasons for the turnaround are most likely because of head coach Doug Pederson, the improved play of quarterback Trevor Lawrence (outside of last week’s five-turnover debacle against the Philadelphia Eagles) and a tenacious defense.

After the Urban Meyer experience last season, Pederson has been a calming presence for the Jaguars, and is trying to change the losing culture. He is a real NFL coach, Meyer was not. Pederson has his players believing that they can win against any opponent. As a Super Bowl-winning coach, Pederson knows what success looks like and what it takes, He also often gives the team a schematic edge against most of his opponents with his innovative play designs and smart play calls, along with offensive coordinator Press Taylor.

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell has his unit playing very well. The Jaguars rank eighth in the NFL against the run (93.8 yards per game), 14th in total defense (330.3 yards per game) and fourth in points allowed per game (16.8). Jacksonville is also tied for second in takeaways (nine), fourth in pressures (46) and tied for fourth in hurries (19).

As for Lawrence, he had an OK, but not great opening game against the Washington Commanders and, as mentioned, a poor outing against the Eagles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those were the two games the Jaguars lost. In the games in between against the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers, though, Lawrence was electric. He completed 53 of 69 passes (76.8 percent) for 497 yards with five touchdowns and zero interceptions in those two contests. Pederson has been really good for Lawrence, and Lawrence has flashed his All-Pro potential throughout the season. Last Sunday’s game with the four fumbles against Philly felt more like an anomaly, but of course, that kind of play is inexcusable, even if it was raining hard.

There is also just much more talent from top to bottom on the roster this year compared last year. Jacksonville brought in several free agent additions, and many of those players have made an immediate impact — wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, offensive guard Brandon Scherff, tight end Evan Engram, outside linebacker Arden Key, cornerback Darious Williams, linebacker Foye Oluokun and defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi. Plus, Jacksonville’s two first-round picks, outside linebacker Travon Walker and inside linebacker Devin Lloyd, have played major roles for the defense and have played quite well, while third-round rookie Luke Fortner is the starting center for the offense.

The Jaguars have a lengthy losing streak against the Texans. What do you see as the biggest key to breaking that streak?

Yes, eight-straight losses to the Texans is not a good look. Jacksonville has not beaten Houston since the 2017 season. This year, at least on paper, the Jaguars seem to be the much more talented team. However, that hasn’t always meant a win in this series.

In order to break the losing streak against Houston, Jacksonville needs to take care of the ball. Looking back at each of the past eight games with the Texans, the Jaguars have only won the turnover battle once, which actually was the most recent meeting. But, Jacksonville had more turnovers in five of those games, and the teams had equal amounts of giveaways twice. It’s not really anything earth-shattering here, but winning the turnover battle generally correlates to wins. Another trend I notice is that Houston had more rushing yards in six of those eight games, so the team that can run the ball most effectively will be set up to win.

Overall, this feels like Jacksonville’s game to lose this week.

Who are some of the unsung players on both sides of the ball that Texans fans should know about before Sunday?

Offensively, I mentioned wide receiver Zay Jones earlier. He missed last week’s game against Philadelphia, but if he is healthy enough to play this week, he can be a difference-maker alongside Marvin Jones Jr. and Christian Kirk. He ranks second on the team in receptions (19) and receiving yards (173), and has one touchdown on the season. He has also gained 10 first downs. Evan Engram, playing at tight end, could make his presence felt in the receiving game as well.

Also, offensive linemen don’t get a lot of love, but tackles Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor have played really well this season (although Taylor did have some struggles against Haason Reddick and the Eagles last week), as has right guard Brandon Scherff.

Defensively, I mentioned linebackers Foye Oluokun, Devin Lloyd and Travon Walker, and of course outside linebacker Josh Allen is one of the leaders and best players of the unit, but also keep an eye on second-year cornerback Tyson Campbell. Campbell has recorded 15 tackles, three passes defended and an interception on the season. He has allowed completions of just 52.2 percent when targeted, according to Pro Football Reference. Campbell, Shaquill Griffin and Darious Williams make up a formidable trio of cornerbacks.

Foley Fatukasi has been ruled out with a quad injury, but other players on the defensive line who may not always show up on the stat sheet, but could make an impact include Dawuane Smoot, Roy Robertson-Harris and DaVon Hamilton.

How do you view the Texans from your vantage point? How do you predict this game going on Sunday? Is the Texans being 7-point underdogs on DraftKings Sportsbook justified?

I’ve only seen bits and pieces of Houston’s games so far this season, but from the outside looking in, the Texans appear to be a team that lacks talent but competes and keeps games close. The Texans were in line to beat the Colts in the season opener, up 20-3 at one point, but of course the game eventually ended in a tie. Going into the season, I expected the Colts to win that game by at least two touchdowns, so even though Houston blew the lead, I was fairly impressed.

The Texans have held a lead in three of the four games played and have been within 10 points in every game thus far, with three of the four contests ending in a one-score game (or less in the case of the tie). Even last week against the Chargers, Houston found itself in a 21-0 hole and stormed back to get within three points in the fourth quarter before ultimately falling 34-24. I know this team is 0-3-1, but I don’t believe Houston will back down from anybody and the Texans seem to play through adversity. With that said, the overall roster just seems to be devoid of talent, and doesn’t quite know how to win yet. Again, that is just my limited view of the Texans so far.

Like I said, I do think this is the Jaguars’ game to lose. Jacksonville has a better roster, probably better coaching and is playing at home. The Jaguars also seem to have a much higher ceiling this season overall. Houston also struggles to stop the run, so I think James Robinson and Travis Etienne Jr. could each have big games. I think the Texans might hang around for a bit on Sunday, but the Jaguars start breaking away late in the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter and win by something like 13 points. I predict a final score of around 30-17, with Jacksonville winning.

We know the Texans are bringing up the rear in the AFC South, but the other three are bunched tightly together. How do you see the division playing out? Who do you see as the biggest threat to the Jaguars from going worst to first?

I honestly think the division is wide open, theoretically the Texans could even still win it, although that is quite unlikely. So far, the Jaguars look like the best team in the division to me. The Jaguars have already shut out the Colts 24-0, although, for whatever reason, Indianapolis always plays horribly in Jacksonville. So the game in Indianapolis could still be a loss for the Jags.

With that said, I would say the Tennessee Titans are the biggest threat right now. The Jaguars and Titans currently have the same record at 2-2. Jacksonville has lost five-straight to Tennessee and running back Derrick Henry is always a load to handle, but the Titans also seem to have taken a step back this year. The two late-season meetings (Week 14 in Nashville and Week 18 in Jacksonville) will likely determine the winner of the AFC South this season, but the Colts still have a shot, too.

We wanted to thank Ryan for spending some time with us and giving us such thorough answers to our questions. You can follow him on Twitter @ryanobleness. The Jaguars are favored in the game tomorrow, but you can throw records and predictions out the window when two AFC South teams get together. We wish the best for Ryan and the Jaguars for the rest of the season. That is after tomorrow’s game of course.