Four Downs: Texans 30, Jaguars 14

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Old reliable for the Texans is the Jacksonville Jaguars. Since the 2010s started, the Texans have been able to mostly count on the Jaguars to be a get-right game. And with Jacksonville’s best two defensive players out, it would have been a major upset if the Texans weren’t able to cook them on offense today. For two quarters, some doubt lingered. It was closer than it should have been. The Jaguars missed some field goals. Deshaun Watson threw a pick on a tipped pass and another on a play-action ball to Will Fuller that he didn’t get close enough to the sideline.

But eventually what won out was the fact that Jacksonville’s depleted defense couldn’t keep up with Deshaun Watson or the Texans. The Jacksonville offense never materialized and were held up with a miraculously hilarious fourth-down go. I’m not going to celebrate this win as a return to the AFC South champion normal — I think the Texans showcased plenty of flaws here. But it is, ultimately, important to string together as many ugly wins as you can over the course of the season and for three quarters that was exactly what this game was. Then ol’ Romeo threw the rope-a-dope out, went for it on fourth down, and Watson torched the Jaguars on an all-out blitz:

Green Bay will tell us a lot more about where this team is in the post-Bill O’Brien era. (I have no idea if Tennessee will field a team next week.) Brandin Cooks had a big game. Randall Cobb, under the radar, had a very efficient game. The passing offense delivered. For now, let’s just celebrate the fact that the team isn’t winless and they mostly took care of business.

1) Romeo Crennel, the energy creator

One thing that was unanimous in the post-game comments, whether from Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, Brandin Cooks, or even David Johnson, was that the energy and mood of this team changed with Bill O’Brien gone. Watson referenced in his post-game presser that he’s always very hard on himself, and even O’Brien had told him he needed to lighten up on his self-criticism.

I don’t know how much to buy into the narrative that O’Brien’s absence made a huge difference with this team. They still threw away some downs on offense. If this was the typical 30-point allowed game the Texans have caught this season, it would have been a dogfight at the very worst and could have been another loss. Then the extra added layer of it is that the Jaguars came into this game with the worst pass defense in the NFL and even some of the good portions of that were not available. I certainly don’t think that O’Brien would be incapable of winning the game with this set of numbers.

But there was something more elemental and emotional to all this. The players, I think, needed someone that they believed in. The non-OB coaching staff needed an ability to just do their jobs:

People have talked a lot about how GM BOB got head coach BOB fired, but I think after absorbing a week of fallout content — arguments everywhere, culture of walking on eggshells, and so on — I think GM BOB got head coach BOB tight. BOB’s controversial decisions made him extra-focused on trying to prove them right, and what unfolded from there was just a man who had his hands on a little too much of everything.

Switching to Romeo was like letting the foot off the pedal a little bit after you swerve out of control on something slick. The team just recomposed themselves, remembered they had Deshaun Watson, Laremy Tunsil, and J.J. Watt, and they played like it. That doesn’t mean that the car hasn’t been stripped for parts. It does mean the car still runs.

2) David Johnson had his best running game of the season — also, the Texans need to use David Johnson much, much less

One thing that transcends coaching is the fact that Johnson just doesn’t cut it as a lead back for an NFL team at this point of his career. It’s not only about the vision, it’s about how slow he is re-directing in traffic and how uncomfortable he looks doing it. Johnson busted off a 29-yard run that basically ended the game, but he continues to be almost exclusively an outside-only runner:

It became clear that in the first few drives of the game, Johnson was part of the reason this team stalled out. Giving him the ball on the second offensive play of the game on first down — for no gain — ended the drive. When the Texans crossed midfield in a 0-0 game on their second drive, Johnson took the ball on first down and lost a yard. After Watson bailed them out of that, he took another first-down carry for three yards. Deshaun Watson had to scramble them out of that. On third-and-12, they dialed up a screen for him and he did this:

This is supposed to be Johnson’s strength: His versatility as a receiver. But he hasn’t been especially great at that, either. His balance is not good. This play might have set the Texans up to go for it on fourth down had it succeeded. Instead, they were basically forced into a field goal.

Second-and-4 in the red zone:

Another field goal after Watson’s third-down play goes incomplete to Johnson.

The story of football’s modern environment is that if you run the ball, you need to be efficient about it. Right now, on inside carries, the offensive line has to absolutely wreck the line of scrimmage to get David Johnson yards. It’s just not sustainable on any level. It was okay in this game, because Deshaun Watson bailed the Texans out. Against an NFL defense that isn’t missing its two best players and has a pass rush? Hoo boy.

I hope David Johnson’s back is great tomorrow and he comes out and rolls 300 rushing yards on the Packers/Titans if they actually are able to play. But listen, everything I’ve seen so far is of a running back who just can’t cut it on what the Texans are asking him to do. Even the receiving plays feel like they’d be better with Duke Johnson involved. I don’t know if a lower role is going to sit well with him. I don’t know what they need to do here. But … this isn’t working. It can’t work the way he’s playing right now.

3) Massive run defense improvements or massive Jaguars coaching idiocy?

The Jaguars started hot on run offense, coming out with four James Robinson carries for 33 yards.

From then on out, the Jaguars had nine carries for 15 yards. The Texans successfully run blitzed some of those downs. Others, they just won on pure numbers in the box:

In general, I think Crennel’s hands were on the defensive game plan in a way that surprised the Jaguars. Crennel played a lot of zone, rushed three fairly often, and he asked Gardner Minshew to hit the throws he often has problems hitting. Minshew was compiling a lot of completions underneath, but they were failed completions. They were four yards on second-and-10, or six yards on third-and-10. He wasn’t able to get to his comfort zone. When Jacksonville did have success, it was off play-action or otherwise scheming up deeper balls that actually worked.

I think that kind of caught the Jaguars off-guard because it’s the opposite of the way the Texans played their first four games of the season under Weaver’s charge — they played two deep safeties and gave up plenty of short stuff. Crennel decided that he wanted to make the Jaguars beat him deep, and often they couldn’t. Here’s what Doug Marrone had to say about that in his post game:

I think there’s some push-pull here — the defense the Texans played took Jacksonville into that mindset just as much as their defensive injuries probably did. But to me, this game plan had Crennel’s fingerprints all over it. I think it’s one that can be used against a lot of defenses the Texans play going forward. The Packers, looking suddenly rejuvenated with Aaron Rodgers making deep balls rain all over the field? Maybe not.

4) What in the name of Chris Brown?

The major turning point in this game. Fourth-and-1, the Jaguars are still in the game despite the fact that their kicker has proven to be terrible. Deshaun Watson’s interception popped up by Sidney Jones is returned to the Jacksonville 25. The run game starts pushing. Robinson gets 3, 6, and 2 on three carries to set up a third-and-2, down 6. On third down, Justin Reid comes up with a huge stop short of the sticks on a pass where only he could stop Tyler Eifert from converting the third down:

Then, on fourth down, the Jaguars decide to roll Minshew out and let Robinson take a direct snap to … throw the ball? Yes, to throw the ball. That is what they did:

Nobody bought on the fake. It was fourth-and-1 and they had numbers and a gap on Whitney Mercilus’ side. Instead, Robinson fumbled and the Texans got their first turnover of the season. It was catastrophic for the Jaguars. Marrone’s defense of the play was simply that they practiced it all week:

Against what, coming in to today, was a terrible run defense — one of the four worst in the NFL easy. I don’t get it. I get why you’d install the play to begin with, maybe, but calling it in that spot on a drive that was critical just smacks of the kind of too-cutery the collective Texans fanbase shanked Bill O’Brien for. That took the wind out of Jacksonville’s sails.

Eight plays later, Deshaun Watson hits Will Fuller for a touchdown, the Texans are up multiple scores, and they never look back.

I don’t want to harp too much on this play because to me the story was that Houston’s pass offense was clicking and they probably would have gone on to score more points even after the turnover on downs. But it’s hard to look at the course of this game, look at that play, and not marvel at how idiotic this call was. Particularly as it pertains to Jacksonville’s running attack that was grounded afterwards.

They had one more designed run for the rest of the game.


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