Week 5 Preview: Texans vs. Jaguars

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Well, a lot has happened since we last did a preview.

After a week including the firing of a man who has coached the Texans since before I had even met my wife, the takeover of power by a TED talk disguised as a person, the ascension of Romeo Crennel to head coach, and ownership talking loudly about not being able to afford DeAndre Hopkins only for Hopkins to pwn them on Twitter, the Houston Texans will now … play a football game again.

The Jaguars come into this game 1-3 and licking their wounds after letting some preventable losses slip out of their hands. Chris Conley drops destroyed them in Miami, they lost a three-point heartbreaker in Nashville to the COVID-19s, and a third-quarter blitzkrieg from the Bengals run game buried them last weekend. They’ve got a feisty, scrappy offense that has created some good things this year. Their defense … they field eleven players as well.

The Texans swept the Jaguars last year, as well as in 2018, and have taken 23 of 39 games against them in franchise history. You can literally say that the Texans have built an entire identity around beating the Jaguars. They’re the only divisional opponent Houston has a winning record against.

The Texans opened as 6.5-point favorites — 0-4, fired their head coach, 6.5-point favorites — over Jacksonville. Since that line opened, the Texans are down to 6-point favorites, but the over/under has skyrocketed from 47 to 54.5. That aligns a lot with how I see this game playing out.

When the Texans have the ball

All stats courtesy of Football Outsiders

The firing of Bill O’Brien opens up a lot of improvement areas for this offense. The hot reads and offensive design around them can get better. The blocking can get better. Max Scharping might be able to play a football game without being dragged into the basement. But no improvement area matters quite as much as how bad this Jaguars defense has been.

Jacksonville comes into this game with DVOA’s worst defense in the NFL, they’re 32nd in the NFL in pass defense DVOA. The first four teams that the Texans played are all in the top 14. (Yes, even with the Vikings’ downfield burnings.) Joe Burrow’s pass chart from last week shows that he completed all but three of his 29 passes at a distance of less than 20 yards. Burrow’s deep ball struggles this year are something that astute Bengals minds have been talking about a lot. In Week 3, Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t even need to attack this defense because they made Miami a good run offense:

Now, the Jaguars have had good individual players. Myles Jack rates as Pro Football Focus’ best linebacker and best coverage linebacker this year. Josh Allen off the edge has plenty of juice. Problem: Both of those players missed Wednesday practice with new injuries, and Allen missed Thursday’s practice as well. (He did do an interview though, which is a good sign for his availability.) Most of Jacksonville’s young players are either already flops or have been up-and-down at best at this point of the season. First-rounder C.J. Henderson had a nifty interception against Phil Rivers in a coverage disguise, but has taken some lumps. K’Lavon Chaisson has one sack and a 4.2% pressure rate in 71 pass rushes — those are Whitney Mercilus numbers, for my Texans fans.

Jacksonville has blitzed on just 21.0% of quarterback dropbacks this year, the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL. Heavy blitzers have given Watson problems. The Jaguars have just four sacks this season, tied for the second-fewest in the NFL. Jacksonville’s allowed a 32.2% DVOA to tight ends, 29th in the NFL, and a 27.0% DVOA to running backs, 27th in the NFL. Good short passing games have shredded them — they have a short pass DVOA of 10.2%, 28th in the NFL.

On the injury front in Houston, Jordan Akins got in a limited practice so that should give him a chance to be cleared on concussion protocol. However, Darren Fells has shown enough for me to believe he’ll do enough against this defense if he has to. He struggles against tight coverage, but the Jaguars haven’t offered a lot of that this season.

While their run defense numbers are a little better, the Jaguars aren’t exactly dominant at that either. They’ve allowed 5.0 yards per carry to teams running out of 11-personnel (one back, one tight end), which is Houston’s main set. They’ve allowed 5.6 yards per carry to teams running out of 12-personnel, which is the main Texans changeup. Joe Schobert got a huge deal in free agency and yet has seamlessly filled the Paul Posluszny role of “highly paid linebacker who doesn’t seem to be making a ton of difference.”

It’s really hard to know what to expect from the Texans offense coming out of the wreckage. I know that both Deshaun Watson and his quarterback coach Quincy Avery are high on Tim Kelly’s ability to coordinate a good offense. We have no evidence one way or the other at this point, because I think you have to consider everything that happened in the first four weeks as tainted by O’Brien. Because the run game was so robotic and the pass game was so broken, I land on the Texans making some strides this week. I expect there’ll still be some things to complain about on Sunday, but hopefully there’ll also be some gains.

David Johnson, I believe, can get 60 yards against this defense on the ground. But I think at this point we need to acknowledge that he’s just not a good between-the-tackles back. That part of the offense has struggled with predictability, but it also has struggled because he’s just not good at this. It was part of the reason bringing him in was kind of problematic, and nothing that we’ve seen this year should dissuade that. He’s slow to his lanes and doesn’t see them well. Even the Texans own in-house people called him out by omission:

As long as David Johnson has a huge role in this offense that doesn’t involve him running outside or catching passes, the Texans are going to be shackling themselves a bit.

When the Jaguars have the ball

Jacksonville has made a pretty impressive short game in Jay Gruden’s scheme out of Gardner Minshew and a couple of good wideouts: third-year player D.J. Chark and rookie Leviska Shenault Jr. Minshew has maximized his tools in Gruden’s system. He doesn’t have an impressive deep ball. He fumbles a bit too often when he’s hit, and is the kind of quarterback who will hold on to the ball that extra beat.

But otherwise, Minshew has good short area accuracy, he reads a defense well, and the Jaguars will nickel-and-dime you up the field and mix in some play-action shots off their run game. Mistake-free football is imperative. Minshew will latch on to any coverage busts. He’s also a heady scrambler, which is something he did to the tune of 90 total rushing yards over two games against the Texans last year.

Romeo Crennel did limit the Jaguars passing attack last year — they sacked Minshew four times in his first start against them and three in the second in London. They also mixed in two interceptions in London. The major difference between then and now I can show you from some Next Gen Stats charts:

These are Minshew’s last two games worth of attempts. Notice how he is peppering the middle of the field. Last year against the Texans in London, Minshew only targeted the middle of the field 11 times in 47 attempts. He completed 8-of-13 there for 108 yards and a pick — and was 6-of-6 for 65 yards on throws under 10 yards. The Texans retain a 46.2% DVOA allowed on passes over the short middle, and have the league’s worst short pass defense overall at 22.9% DVOA. That plays right into what the Jaguars do. Houston is going to need to not miss tackles, play their assignments better than we’ve seen this year, and generally play like they’ve never played this year to make hay of this passing game. They might bait Minshew a time or two, but I think on the whole he’s a pretty consistent player and he will take what’s open underneath.

Next man up against Houston’s execrable run defense is undrafted rookie James Robinson, who has taken the league (and your fantasy league) by storm early in his career:

Simply put, I’m expecting more of the same. I don’t think Jacksonville’s defense is good enough to shut down the Texans, so I don’t think there’s a huge risk of the Texans getting game scripted (massive time of possession win for the Jaguars that forces the Texans into full catchup mode), but without major personnel changes I would be surprised if the Jaguars didn’t have full reign to run over this team and create play-action mismatches on Vernon Hargreaves.

Cam Robinson and Tyler Eifert are on the injury report, and the Jaguars seem likely to get Brandon Linder back from a knee injury after he practiced in full on Thursday. That should be yet another reason to believe in Robinson’s ability to rev it up against a bad defense this week.

The other major subplot this week, speaking of those personnel changes, is what it’s going to take for the Texans to get more rookies involved on defense for guys who aren’t pulling their weight. Here’s what Anthony Weaver had to say about that at Thursday’s presser:

Romeo Crennel, even dating back to last year, hasn’t seemed to have much esteem for rookies. During Friday’s presser with the media he indicated that they were playing a totally different game. Well, without those rookies, it’s hard to see how much changes on this defense beyond simply correcting mistakes. That has been the tone and tenor of everything they’ve put out there. I believe this defense can play better than they’ve been playing, but not that much better.

Special teams

In a vacuum, the best thing about Jacksonville special teams the last two years has been Josh Lambo, who is now on IR. They did have great punt coverage teams last year as well, but that has not held up through the first four weeks of this season.

The Texans haven’t played up to their talent in this area either, particularly one tough, dependable, and smart returner who may or may not have fumbled last week.

The read

High-flying shootout. The Texans and Jaguars have two of the worst defenses in the NFL. I believe that the absence of Bill O’Brien will galvanize an offense that seemed constipated and that they will be mostly great when David Johnson isn’t taking handoffs up the middle.

At home, with a big spread in their favor, I’m going to ride with the Texans to take the game. I do think the Jaguars are going to keep the game close, mostly because I don’t see a reason they shouldn’t if the defense stays as it was and Anthony Weaver’s comments to the press on Thursday indicated that was the case. Give me Houston 36, Jacksonville 32. Start everybody involved in this game for fantasy purposes, IMO.

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