Four Downs: Texans 37, Jaguars 21

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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Well, this certainly wasn’t the game I expected to watch today. It is too early to feast on a season-long portion of crow, and it was just the Jaguars, but it was beyond welcome to see a big win for the first time since Thanksgiving Day 2020. It is fun to sit around and think of writing a recap and not know where to begin in a positive way, for a change. Let’s do this more often.

But I think the easy lead is: There is no part of me that ever expected Tyrod Taylor to put up 8.5 yards per pass in this game. A lot of it comes down to two magnificent plays: the 40-yard bomb to Brandin Cooks to set up Houston’s first score, and the 52-yard pass to Cooks on third-and-1 that set up Houston’s touchdown to take a 27-7 halftime lead.

The first of these two passes feels like it was created in a lab. Tyrod Taylor has pressure in his face, places a ball that is absolutely spot-on to Cooks, who has to high-point it between both his defender and the single-high safety. Not only does he come down with it, there’s no review of the catch, which looked a little bit questionable. That turns what would have been a punt — and looked like a wildly unlikely completion based on where everyone was from the throw — into a touchdown. Follow that up with the play before the half:

K’Lavon Chaisson goes from clean shot on Taylor into an absolute goat for the play, and Taylor buys enough time that the single-high safety has to pick up Pharaoh Brown. That leaves Cooks against Shaquill Griffin all alone, and Cooks leaves him in the dust. Meanwhile, Taylor lofts an absolutely perfect ball over the retreating safety. And the Texans take a timeout and score a touchdown on the next play.

Take these two highly improbable plays out of the game and you have a line that looks more like what I expected from Taylor: 19-of-31 for 199 yards and a sack. Of course, you can’t erase those plays, they absolutely happened. They showed more upside than I thought we’d see from Taylor buying time as a scrambler. To be honest, if I clipped those two plays and put them in Deshaun Watson’s career highlights, they would not look out of place. This one too:

So, what are the odds that more of that is in Taylor’s bag at 32 years old? I would subjectively say not high, and I would say that while I didn’t expect them to pants Jacksonville’s defense in Week 1, that the Texans getting some concepts to succeed against them was absolutely in play. But if Tyrod Taylor throws out four plays every week that look like peak Watson on-field shit? Sure, the Texans are going to be a lot better than any of us thought.

1) The impact of game script

As a run-focused team, the Texans are going to be very reliant on making sure that this club is always in their bag, and so for them most of pretty much every NFL team, it’s important that they get out to leads early. That’s what happened here, and that’s why that first Cooks touchdown was so huge. When you put the Jaguars into a 14-0 hole early, taking advantage of good field position and a defense that looked like it had never seen a bunch formation before, what that means is you get to operate with the entire bag open for the whole game.

And in tandem with that — or as Bill O’Brien would say, complimentary to that — is that when you keep the opposing team from running and make them one-dimensional, you get to really dial in on whatever weaknesses they have in that area. The Jaguars very much looked like a group of receivers that had never played with Trevor Lawrence before, even despite the three touchdowns and 300 yards passing. Plays like this were extremely common:

The Jaguars had a pair of monster runs in the first quarter called back for holding, and they ran for 4.8 yards per carry despite getting absolutely nothing from Lawrence as a runner. Did the Texans have to worry about that? Nope. Those holding calls — one of which would have set up first-and-10 at the HOU 30 — were enormous in helping to set the script and in making the Jaguars as one-dimensional as they were. Eventually that led to a young quarterback trying to do too much, and that’s when Vernon Hargreaves, of all people, flourished:

Lawrence showed me a lot of why he deserved to be the No. 1 pick today, but there were some extremely big mistakes and the Jaguars let the game script get out of hand too fast for the Texans to not focus on him. The first 10 minutes of each Texans game are going to decide a lot more than we think.

2) An actual crow eating: Mark Ingram flourished and made the early Caserio moves look better

I was not much of a believer in the Mark Ingram signing — I am not a fan of running backs that are bad enough to become midseason inactives the year before. I was not much of a believer in the Justin Britt signing. I am not a fan of centers that miss an entire year to injury. Or, I think the better way to look at this is: I wasn’t a fan of them being priority signs. I don’t mind trying to sift through and find players, but I didn’t really like the idea of getting so deep into the scrapheap that early, because I think the Texans should have been focused on players for a rebuild instead of players for a culture.

However,

For this, and this only, I think a little bit of crow for dinner early on is the right approach. Ingram has been the best running back on the team to this point simply because he has the best vision in a crowd and the ideal version of this team is 1980s football:

To put that into perspective, David Johnson saw 14.9% of his snaps on the season with eight-plus men in the box in 2020.

Now, does Ingram’s overall box score look sexy? No. 26 carries for 85 yards at 3.3 a tote is a workmanlike line. But when you consider it in the overall context of Ingram having to take carries into crowded boxes for half the game, that starts looking a lot better. The Texans did not have a very efficient running game today, but the yards that Ingram was earning were Big Tough Football yards that you get via force of will and only with great vision.

Am I going to be happy that Ingram took all of Scottie Phillips’ carries in four months? Maybe, maybe not, depends on what that means in a grander scope of how this season goes. But I’m happy for him that he’s still got this gear in his bag and I can’t deny it played a big role in the outcome of this game.

3) One sack, four quarterback hits, but more impactful than that sounds

Trevor Lawrence wasn’t exactly evading Texans defenders all day. I’d put the plurality of the blame of the Jaguars offense discombobulation on the game script, and after that, Jacksonville’s penalties and inability to get in sync. The lone sack from Whitney Mercilus was a case where Lawrence simply took so wide of an angle off an initial rush that he ran himself into additional pressure:

I think there were a lot of completable throws left on the field, but I also think on a down-to-down basis, the Texans did a much better job of getting a push in the pocket. Compare this to some of the pictures I was putting out last season, where J.J. Watt was the only person in the quarterback’s zip code. The Texans finished with four quarterback hits, and a few of those hits would come later in the game as the script solidified itself. But the actual pass rush was alive in a way that I’d say it wasn’t in 2020. How much of that is about the Jaguars offensive line continually being terrible? Well, probably a chunk of it. The Jaguars were one of the few teams that the Texans were able to do this to last year.

My concerns about the lack of an impact pass rusher are still very real at this point, but if the Texans can spin this into more than just a “only good against the Jaguars thing,” that’d be a big selling point for upping our projections for them.

4) This one’s for the vets

The Texans targeted Nico Collins just three times. One of those was a red zone target: Collins supposedly committed offensive pass interference on this play:

Collins didn’t really fit into the overall game flow much. Ross Blacklock had one of the quarterback hits and figured into the pass rush but was behind Maliek Collins. Roy Lopez played a fair amount of snaps after Vincent Taylor was carted off. Other than that, hard to find anybody who played a big role in this game that was young. Scottie Phillips was inactive. Charlie Heck’s on the COVID list. Brevin Jordan was inactive. Jon Greenard was inactive with an injury. Garret Wallow didn’t play real snaps as far as I saw.

The last thing I’m going to do is defecate on the Texans for winning a game decisively, but I want to bring this up to point out that to me it’s very clear that no part of this says a damn word about tanking. They believe in themselves and the culture they’ve created, and I think for a Week 1 result, it’s okay to say that they’ve earned the right to talk their talk about it for a spell. Are we ultimately going to remember this as the launch point of an exemplary football culture that Nick Caserio has GalaxyBrained us all into? I’ve been dismissive about it and can’t say one game has changed my mind. But there’s more doubt in my head about it than there was before that one game!

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This doesn’t feel like enough because there are so many players that deserve their own point in Game 1:

Pharaoh Brown was as excellent as he was last season, in an even bigger role. It was very easy to see how good he was last year, but you didn’t really know if that was going to be something that you could rely on. He certainly was that good today. (Jordan Akins was invisible.)

Danny Amendola rolled literally off the street and caught a touchdown and five balls.

The Texans didn’t turn the ball over at all. I’m flabbersmocked. I was more than open to the idea of the Texans winning this game, but I never expected it to be a crockpotting.


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