Week 9 Preview: Texans @ London (vs. Jaguars)

With a Deshaun Watson Houdini win in their back pocket from last week’s season-altering clash with the Raiders, the Houston Texans enter this week’s game in a precarious situation in a few ways. For one thing, the defense will have to operate without J.J. Watt, ending almost all of the pass rush they’ve received this season. For another, Lonnie Johnson’s concussion further exacerbates a cornerback unit that has been besieged by injury.

At the same time, even though this game is taking place at 8:30 central time, it has a ton of meaning for the Texans. A win would improve their playoff odds per ESPN’s calculations by 22%, Getting to 6-3 in this weakened AFC would mean a ton for the Texans.

Houston won Week 2’s matchup with the Jaguars by … one point. As I wrote then, there were reasons to believe Gardner Minshew had some promise, and he has mostly fulfilled that promise so far. The Jaguars, surprisingly, have a better pass offense DVOA than the Texans. Jacksonville has not beaten Houston since 2017. Houston is favored to win this game by … one point. It opened with the Texans as three-point favorites and got bet down.

The Jaguars have played in London every season since 2013. If you deeply care about the lore of London games, the Jaguars are 3-3 in these games. Both the Texans and Jaguars flew in on the same day, so thankfully we won’t be hearing much about the travel adjustment time in a competitive advantage sense.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

The major issue in this game is the return of Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue did not play in Week 2, but already has four sacks and 16 hurries per Sports Info Solutions. The health of Roderick Johnson and Tytus Howard remains an open question mark, though both practiced in full on Thursday. Backup tackle Chris Clark was a disaster in Week 8, and if he happens to get a full complement of playing time again I think it will significantly hurt Houston’s chances of getting much going downfield against the Jaguars.

With a healthy Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Josh Allen, I expect to see the Texans doing a lot of what they did in the fourth quarter last week: rolling Watson out of the pocket to avoid pressures and set up their RPO quick pass game. The Jaguars are third in the NFL in sacks. Even if Howard is healthy, both he and Max Scharping have had their rookie-year issues in one-on-one pass pro, and the Jaguars blitz a fair amount.

Jacksonville is 24th in the NFL in DVOA allowed on passes over the middle, at 33.8%. Myles Jack has rebounded a bit from his rough start against Kansas City in Week 1, but Jacksonville’s cheap dreams at linebacker have been a disaster. Both Leon Jacobs and Quincy Williams have been sidelined with injuries in practices this week, and it seems likely that the Texans will draw Austin Calitro as a starter. The Texans will probably want to target him in RPOs.

I don’t know how else to say it: I am flummoxed by replacing Keke Coutee with DeAndre Carter last weekend. Carter is more elusive than speedy, and one of his downfield targets last week was more akin to watching a hockey goalie than a receiver. Coutee may have made mental errors, but he is head-and-shoulders above Carter as a receiver — and his elusiveness makes him a good fit for this game in particular. The Jaguars have allowed more yards after the catch than any team besides the Texans. I’m really hoping this was a one-week blip, because I think highly of Coutee’s on-field talent.

I’m sad the DeAndre Hopkins-Jalen Ramsey matchup is gone. It was always one of the biggest draws in the AFC South. The Jaguars are actually pretty banged up at cornerback as well, with DJ Hayden missing the first two days of practice this week and Josh Robinson suddenly retiring. Tre Herndon and A.J. Bouye look to be the outside corners, with Breon Borders next man up as the third guy. Hayden is listed as questionable. I think you could still see someone shadowing Hopkins, as that’s a power/length matchup and the Jaguars have traditionally showed Hopkins with Ramsey. The Jaguars did shadow Robby Anderson with Tre Herndon last week. Personally I think Bouye is a better fit for Hopkins since that’s power on power, but I’m not an NFL head coach.

The most important thing in this game for Houston’s sake is for them to be able to run the ball. The odds look good there in my opinion. The Jaguars have a positive run defense DVOA (bad), and allowed 126 rushing yards the last time these two teams met. They are coming off back-to-back weeks of 33 and 46 rushing yards allowed, but those were against two completely incompetent offenses in Cincinnati and the Jets.

When the Jaguars have the ball

Gardner Minshew has been pretty good this season, but the Jaguars maintain an offensive identity that is more about running the football. They are seventh in the NFL in rushing attempts even though a ton of the value they get from them are just the big randomly long Leonard Fournette runs. Per SportsRadar numbers, no NFL team gets more yards after contact than the Jaguars on their runs — 3.1 per attempt, and they lead the NFL on a counting stat level by more than 100 yards. This is a spotlight game for Zach Cunningham and Bernardrick McKinney — they’re going to be moving up in the pecking order for the Jaguars to block with Watt gone. Easiest way to hold down this offense is to keep them throwing in on third-and-long.

Jacksonville’s offensive line has received an upgrade in the form of a healthy Cam Robinson, who is much better than Will Richardson. You’ll recall that a lot of Houston’s pressure in Week 2 involved Whitney Mercilus dominating Richardson. Robinson is a much more fair matchup for the Jaguars. Not having to help Jawaan Taylor outside will also mean a lot in pass protection, as you’ll recall that they mostly kept Watt contained with double teams in Week 2.

The other thing that happened in Week 2 is that Romeo Crennel blitzed the hell out of Gardner Minshew. SportsRadar has Minshew with 20 blitzes taken in 37 dropbacks, and most of the non-blitz dropbacks were on the final drive. Minshew shows some pretty big splits between blitzed and non-blitzed games. The Saints brought 13 blitzes in holding him to 163 yards in Week 6. The Jaguars were held down through most of the game against the Broncos with 12 blitzes. Even the Bengals had early success with blitzes. I expect the Texans will make that a thematic part of the game plan again, especially because they have no other choice if they want to get pressure. It should be noted that Minshew has great success as a scrambler this year: No team has scrambled more than the Jaguars through Week 8, and their 7.9 yards per scramble are more than the Texans get from Watson as a scrambler.

I would classify the Jaguars as more of a short-passing offense than a deep-passing offense, but interestingly, most of those plays are away from the middle of the field. Minshew threw just one ball between the hashes in Week 8, and only eight passes qualified as “short middle” in the play-by-play. More interestingly, they only had two passes listed as “short middle” against the Texans in Week 2. This is a big positive to me as far as a matchup trend because the Texans, as I noted earlier this week, have been absolutely atrocious defending passes over the middle this past month:

The Texans will not have Tashaun Gipson or Lonnie Johnson for this game, with neither player making the trip across the pond. It looks like the starting cornerback trio will be Johnathan Joseph, Gareon Conley, and Keion Crossen. I expect the Jaguars to try to get DJ Chark on Johnathan Joseph as often as possible, as that’s a physical mismatch and something that worked in Week 2. Chris Conley also had a nice game outside in Week 2. Fill-in safety Jahleel Addae won’t be asked to do anything too big, with the Jaguars not working their tight ends often in the passing game. Mike Adams will take Addae’s role as dime safety.

There’s a lot of pressure on Houston’s defensive front seven to remain stout without Watt, but they did a fairly good job holding up against Josh Jacobs in the second half last week against Oakland’s run-heavy game plan. The Jaguars are primarily an 11-personnel team, so that’s asking a lot of D.J. Reader. But Reader has been great in almost every game this season, even when asked to play against Quenton Nelson.

Special teams

With field goals trending in the right direction, the Texans don’t have a real weakness as a special teams unit at this point.

The Jaguars have gotten excellent accuracy from Josh Lambo, but have just 73 yards from Dede Westbrook on 14 punt returns. He may be stretched a little thin between his role on offense and returns.

The read

As much as I think that the Texans will eventually be hurt by J.J. Watt’s absence, I think what they do as a defense is a fairly good fit for how the Jaguars play. They can stop the run. They already have proven they’ll send the heat at Gardner Minshew. Minshew may beat them deep a couple of times — that’s kind of how things have crumbled now. The Texans need those negative plays too badly.

I expect Bill O’Brien to play a heavily conservative game plan with a lot of runs. I think he knows how banged up his team is and is trying to get to the bye week with as little stress as possible. That could backfire if the Jaguars get off to a quick start, or it could be part of a positive game script.

After looking at the gritty details, I’m a little more encouraged by this matchup. I agree that the game will be close, and I think it will be less offensive than most of Houston’s last four games if only because both teams love to run. Texans 22, Jaguars 21 is the call here. I don’t feel very confident about this because I think Watt’s injury opens up a lot of different ways the Jaguars can win that we may not know about until they’re exposed on the field.

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