Four Downs: Texans 26, Jaguars 3

The Houston Texans came out with a statement against the Jacksonville Jaguars: We have Deshaun Watson, and you do not.

Staked with the ball first, the Texans established the tempo of the game with a 6:40 drive that only stalled out early because of multiple penalties. The Jaguars managed just four first-half drives, one of which was a kneelout. With Watson’s contributions in the running game, the Jaguars just never were fully able to get a bead on Carlos Hyde, and his 48-yard run towards the end of the third quarter led to the knockout touchdown.

The Jaguars were put in a multiple-score deficit after Houston scored a touchdown, and a Texans defense that played sound, disciplined football pounced all over some poor Gardner Minshew throws to end the game with four turnovers.

Credit where it’s due: This was an excellent game plan from the Texans, and they were able to overcome a lot of injuries to make a laugher out of a team that’s been pretty quality this year and gave them a scare at NRG.

Going to 6-3, with every other team in the division losing and Jacoby Brissett’s status up in the air, the Texans just pounced into prime playoff position as they head into their bye week. They’re two games up on most of the rest of the wild card hunt and division, and they’ve got every chance to control their own destiny against a schedule that only gets tougher after the bye.

1 –Watson deflates defenses

Doug Marrone was asked about the defense not finishing sack attempts after the game, and his answer is pretty revealing about the obvious advantages of having Deshaun Watson as your starting quarterback:

If we’re continuing our Michael Jordan comparisons that Jon Gruden gave us last week, Watson put a number of high-profile dunks on his beleaguered defensive opponents this week. He escaped a sack with an improvised dumpoff to Carlos Hyde that turned a potential third-and-long into a first down:

The defense thought they had him on second-and-20 in the second quarter, and instead he flipped a perfect ball out to Duke Johnson without even having a base under him to throw from, as both his legs were in the air:

And of course, the most iconic moment even as it didn’t go for six, Watson almost found a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter by jumping over Ronnie Harrison entirely:

What the Texans are doing right now is so simple. They’re using Watson as a rusher to get the box advantage, they have mostly gone away from deep throws the last few weeks against teams that tend to play a lot of deep safeties. They’re running a lot of read-option and run-pass options, and they’re telling defenses to solve it.

The reason this plan is so effective isn’t the plan itself — these plays are staples of many NFL offenses — it’s because Watson’s skill set is so extra deadly in them. You can’t have your defensive force player ignore Watson, so the Texans are always running with a numbers advantage. You can’t let tight ends sneak out, because that’s generally about 5-8 free yards, so when Watson rolls out, you can’t leave the tight end. You also have a player who can run for first downs outside. This was demonstrated well on Houston’s fourth-down conversion on their first touchdown drive:

You account for Akins, you account for Watson. Watson can still just make a perfect touch pass on the run and it looks childishly easy.

Watson is miserable to play against.

I will forever be grateful, after 15 years of above-average to poor quarterbacks, that we get to watch this every week.

2 — Game script defense

The Texans finished this game with four turnovers, four sacks, and five quarterback hits.

They had none of them before the score was 19-3.

I think if you’re trying to extrapolate how well this defense will play against better quarterbacks from this team, it’s probably about where we thought it was. Don’t be fooled by the scoreline. This was a perfect matchup for the Texans, one where Gardner Minshew rarely targeted the middle of the field, the Jaguars played right into Houston’s hand by running often, and Minshew was green enough to get fooled by Romeo Crennel’s late adjustments.

You’re going to hear a lot of crowing this week about this defense. Don’t fall for it. This will not become the norm. But I do think there are positives to take from how tightly they contested some balls and how disciplined the played as a whole.

3 — Laremy Tunsil’s absence was barely felt

This is my dead horse to ride on.

Against a team with three vicious pass rushers in Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Josh Allen, the Jaguars managed one sack and seven quarterback hits. If Laremy Tunsil plays, I think you are looking at probably four quarterback hits instead of seven — this is, again, with some horrific tackle play from Chris Clark, who continued to rate as a rotation player in Bill O’Brien’s eyes for reasons I cannot even begin to comprehend:

This was always about the quarterback and what O’Brien was asking him to do. I give every bit of props to O’Brien for remaking the offense to challenge defenses earlier in the down, and I’m sure some of the wrinkles to this game plan would not work exclusively against every team with a bad left tackle all season. Laremy Tunsil has been extremely good when he’s played.

But part of the reason I was so adamant about that trade being an overpay is because I thought games like this were a reality with or without Tunsil. This is a real tough and nasty front, and Deshaun Watson’s passing chart showed that, with almost nothing super deep:

To me, the end game of this offense was always that the short would open the deep, not the other way around. I think there’s still plenty of ways for the trade to unfold where the Texans will have gotten their worth — particularly if Tunsil is able to stonewall some big pass rushers in playoff games to come — but when we are talking about how the Texans need to rebuild their pass rush next offseason, and the only thing I can talk about is free agency and weighing who needs to be re-signed versus who doesn’t … well, the Tunsil trade is going to continue to cast a big shadow over the future of this franchise. For better or for worse.

4 — Duke Johnson, WR1

With Keke Coutee apparently completely indisposed from the Houston game plan, and the short passing game being an emphasis the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of recentering around Duke Johnson. Johnson had five targets last week against the Raiders and found a touchdown out of them, and had five more against the Colts in Week 7.

Johnson, of course, was always going to deliver on these passes. He’s been an empirically amazing running back for several years, and I’m a big fan of any play that gets him into space. The only problem with Johnson right now is that he almost seems to telegraph that it’s going to be a pass play with his presence, which is why the Texans tried to get him going a little bit with a goal line carry:

I have generally been in favor of Carlos Hyde getting the carries between the tackles because to me there is a noticeable difference between the two in reading blocks. Johnson again didn’t have a great day with that, though he’s so dynamic that sometimes it just doesn’t matter. It might be worth setting up some more runs with Johnson solely to keep a defense on their toes. Especially if they can be designed in low-impact plays like second-and-short.

Duke Johnson was all about solidifying this offense’s floor, and he’s delivered on that. These targets would have gone to Alfred Blue or someone like Vyncint Smith last year. We saw what happened when Steven Mitchell was given a chance in the first quarter, when Watson led him perfectly and Mitchell couldn’t catch up to the ball. Johnson is one of the players that will probably keep me from ever predicting less than 20 points for the Texans all season. He’s just that dynamic.

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