Four Downs: Texans 30, Jaguars 16

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The Texans have conclusively proven one thing over the past two years and it’s that no matter how bad they are, they can always count on the Jacksonville Jaguars to be dysfunctional enough to keep them out of the AFC South basement. Even without Deshaun Watson. Even without J.J. Watt. Even without nearly half of the defensive starters due to COVID-19 protocols. It didn’t matter one bit. The Texans didn’t even really need to do much as an offense. The Jaguars self-combusted as a passing offense yet again after a hot start.

Of Houston’s seven wins over the last two seasons, four of them are triumphs over the Jaguars. Maybe they’ll get it together with Trevor Lawrence, maybe they’ll hire a good head coach — it’s kind of hard to believe because the team has been bad for so long — but the hole the Jaguars have dug themselves into today is inimitable and they have almost nothing in the way of NFL-caliber wideouts. They’re starting other team’s first-round draft washouts and vagabonds because Urban Meyer tried to force them to be as fast as they could. The Texans refused to join the Jaguars in that hole today. They just sat and watched as the Jaguars tried to climb out of it, then stepped on their fingers any time they came close.

This is a big victory for the Nick Caserio off-season strategy (I can’t say Easterby here, right? They will get mad at me for saying his name even though the Texans did it before Caserio arrived? OK, just checking.) of “layers and layers of players.” The next men up of age and experience that the Texans accumulated were able to hold off the Jaguars and put the Texans back into the win column.

1) Special teams were a massive difference-maker — in a positive light — for the first time in a Texans game this season

Of course, the big game here was seven points directly off of Tremon Smith’s kickoff return touchdown. That was seven points that influenced a lot about how this game between two sloppy offenses in sloppy weather played out. It directed the entirety of the game script. The Texans are driving to take a lead against the Jaguars on the Brandin Cooks screen touchdown without that, and maybe at that point the Jaguars aren’t bringing a Cover-0 blitz.

But even beyond that, the Texans destroyed the Jaguars on special teams. The Jaguars started drives at the JAX 17, JAX 25, JAX 18, JAX 25, JAX 14, JAX 25, JAX 34, HOU 22, JAX 18, JAX 4, and JAX 25. That means that only two drives all game started beyond a touchback, and one of those was directly off a Davis Mills turnover. The one that made it to the Jacksonville 34 was on a ball that arguably shouldn’t have been returned, because it was caught inside the 5!

On the other side of things, leaving out the touchdown runback, the Texans started drives at the JAX 49, the HOU 38, the JAX 47, the HOU 40 twice, and the HOU 45. One of those was because of a big fourth-down stop, but the Jaguars didn’t turn the ball over at all. Special teams kept giving the Texans the ball in premium field position. And Kai’mi Fairbairn didn’t miss his long attempts, even in the rain, disappointing Jaxson De Ville.

This is sort of more my vision for how wins for the Texans would look this season after the heavy offseason focus on special teams players of some note. Not all of those players actually worked with the Team Team Team — Andre Roberts had a long kickoff return on Thursday night football — and this unit struggled for most of the season. The Texans came into the game 19th in special teams DVOA. But they have had only one negative DVOA special teams game since Week 5 (against the Jets), and suddenly special teams look good enough to give this team a needed edge.

2) Davis Mills hit the two throws he needed to hit, but continues to be mostly fed easy stuff

I don’t think that Davis Mills had a bad game, but I do think the raw numbers are again overstating the impact. Once again, the Texans script mostly worked, and once again, when the other team adjusted, he had problems adjusting with it. He was 13-of-15 for 104 yards and a touchdown at halftime. The Cooks screen pass touchdown — which now that I’ve referenced it twice, I guess I’ll put up below this — ended the game, but pretty much any first down would have ended the game at that point. It was 43 yards. That means from the second half start to the screen pass touchdown, he went 5-of-14 for 62 yards.

The best throw that Mills made all game was a momentum swinger in the third quarter where the Jaguars zero-blitzed and he had to hang tough in the pocket and place a ball to Phillip Dorsett.

Mills did a little jump back on the throw — it’s not exactly something that I think a quarterback coach would be in love with — but that was a humongous throw for the state of the game. 20-10 lead, you’re in No Man’s Land as far as punting/kicking and we all know David Culley wasn’t going for it on fourth down. The throw was placed right in Dorsett’s bucket. That’s the kind of throw he’s going to need to consistently hit to have a real claim as a long-term starter.

The second throw I want to talk about is his 18-yard completion to Jordan Akins at a point of time where the Jaguars finally were bottling up the run and the Texans desperately needed to keep a drive alive. The Texans ran play-action, and it stunned me because they’d been just chewing time up:

Four-man rush, Geron Christian releases his guy into Mills. Burkhead is open underneath. Five Jaguars defenders are either near the first-down marker or running with someone near it. Rudy Ford comes off Burkhead and is able to get his hands in the area, almost intercepting the ball. Instead, fortuitously, it ends up right in Jordan Akins’ hands off a deflection. Miss that completion and the Texans are at third-and-8.

It wasn’t pretty. Obviously, I’m happy for Mills that the winless drought is over. There’s still a lot of work to be done here. He said so himself after the game.

Mills didn’t take the bait on a question to make the game a him versus Lawrence showdown, which is unsurprising because my experience of watching Mills talk has proved that he’s from the Matt Ryan school of quarterback thought. He doesn’t want to put a lot interesting in to the world as a media personality. He just wants to play ball.

It’s a fun fan thing to fire the takes off about Mills performing better than Lawrence this year, and I say have your fun with that. I don’t know that it’s going to last beyond this year, but smoke ’em while you’ve got ’em.

3) The defense didn’t have an eye-popping game, but stood up when it needed to

After giving up 154 yards to the Jaguars on their first two drives, I have to admit I was a little worried that the special teams touchdown wouldn’t hold up. At that point the Jaguars were almost at seven yards per play. From that point on, the Jaguars would have only three drives that gained a first down, one of which came with the game in hand. They converted only three third-downs all game, and while the James Robinson train was hit-or-miss, it’s not like they were handed impossible situations. They just failed to execute time and time again.

Third-and-3, Texans drop into coverage. Lawrence initially comes back to the two curls in the middle but both are well-defensed. He dekes a dumpoff to Robinson, but thinks he has more time than he does as Derek Rivers comes looping around. Lawrence doesn’t have the athleticism to do a lot about a guy right in his face. The drive ends. None of these routes play off each other in a hard way to defend.

People have given Tim Kelly hell around here, and I think he definitely deserves some blame for the way the offense has gone, but watching the Jaguars will give you a new appreciation for what he does. Jacksonville, too, used up all its creativity in the opening script. Their base calls are tough and their skill position players were dire.

Let’s go to the big moment of the defensive game: third-and-2 and the Jaguars are driving to get in position to cut the lead to four. Dare Ogunbowale and Lawrence bobble a handoff after Robinson limps off and it goes to fourth-and-1. The Jaguars try a sneak (they had a great sneak earlier in the game) and they just get stonewalled:

That was an enormous play — if they convert, the Jaguars are almost certainly attempting a field goal to end the half at some point. Instead, the Texans got the ball and were able to advance far enough in a few plays on some quick slants to get into field-goal range. Instead of a four-point game, it’s a ten-point game.

4) The run game was not empirically good, but without penalties, it was enough

The Texans carried only 26 times for 75 yards in this game which is well in line with the established norms. But those 75 yards were not quite as bad as they might seem on paper because they weren’t creating a lot of horrible situations to throw in. This is something David Culley has emphasized time and time again via penalty, but what he really needs is two and three-yard runs to get into third-and-short.

After the Jaguars allowed their opening drive to breathe with a special-teams penalty, the Texans created third-and-1 with two runs, third-and-5 with a run, and third-and-3 with two runs mostly from David Johnson, who then was banished to the bench because David Culley likes Rex Burkhead more as a between the tackles back:

The Texans converted 10-of-18 third downs, in stark contrast to the Jaguars. They failed only two third-and-6 or shorter tries — when Mills went for the kill shot on third-and-6 at the Jaguars 7 to Nico Collins, and another one to Cooks later in the third quarter. To me, the most undersung hero in that is the Texans offensive line — Mills took just one sack for the first time as a starter. The Jaguars finished with only three quarterback hits, and they added only two tackles for loss.

It’s going to look bad in DVOA. It doesn’t look good in the box score. But, I have to admit, it was a slight improvement from what I’ve become accustomed to seeing for the Texans run game. They typically get gored enough times to bleed out a few drives. Not today.

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