Game Preview: Jaguars vs. Houston Texans

After the big upset victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, the Jaguars have no time to celebrate. They are on the short week to prepare against another very powerful opponent, the division rival (and currently leader of the AFC South) Houston Texans. Once again Jack Del Rio’s team is playing against a Top 10 defense, but this time it has a very powerful offense too. To make this game even more important, this is a big one for the Jaguars. If they lose this, they’ll fall behind 3 games to the Texans (with Houston having a tie breaker advantage over them), which make the Jaguars playoff chances very small. But if Jacksonville wins this game, they can go to their bye week with a 1 game gap behind the Texans (and probably the Tennessee Titans) with a tie breaker advantage (in both cases). In other words, this is the most important game the Jaguars face so far in the ’11 season!

I cannot choose which match up will be more different for this game – facing Houston’s offense or defense. I start with the defense, because here I see some areas where the Jaguars might turn into their favor. I must start with an apology. Before the season started I didn’t believed, that the Texans can fix their secondary and can switch from 4-3 to 3-4 successfully. Well it seems they did it. Their draft picks(DE JJ Watt & OLB Brooks Reed) and their 2 big FA signings (CB Johnatan Joseph & FS Danieal Manning) made this defense much-much better. That front seven playing extremly well, even after they lost their best pass rusher Mario Williams. Their defensive line -to be exact their DEs- looking very scary. Antonio Smith has already 4.5 sack. And their 1st round pick of ’11, JJ Watt is one of the best rookie defensive player from the this years draft class. Watt (who was the roommate -and friend- of Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert when they prepared together before the draft) has 2 sacks, and always a threat to the opposing QB. On draft Day the former Wisconsin Badger said, he can’t wait the opportunity to sack his friend when they play against each other. If the Jaguars interior offensive line will not play very well, Watt can fulfill his wish…

I must say if there is any linebacker unit who can match what the Jaguars have in the division, then Houston got it, even without Mario Williams. MLBs DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing playing extremely well behind NT Shaun Cody. If you think that Maurice Jones Drew only can win this game on offense, here’s a statistic: Texans have the 6th best running defense in the league. Sure The Baltimore ravens unit was I think better and Jones-Drew run over a 100 yards, but I fear the Ravens defense gave a blueprint to the rest of the league with out forcing fumbles from the best offensive player of the Jaguars. And while not so many team has the talent at LB to do that, Cusing and for sure Ryans can repeat what we saw on Monday night. Their OLBs are a bit different story. I must admit its good to see OLB Connor Barwin playing very well after that horrible injury he had last year. He is a very effective pass rusher with 2 sacks. In the other side, with Wiliams’ injury the rookie OLB Brooks Reed is in the starting lineup, and he starting to play lately quite solid for more of the time. Because neither of these players played against Maurice Jones-Drew, maybe they could be targeted by his runs or with small yardage passes. I think running in the middle might not be a good idea this time.

The Texans secondary is not a laughing stock anymore (just as the Jaguars DB unit). Both were terrible in the last years, now both team’s secondary ranked in the Top 10 (Jaguars 6th, Texans 8th). Manning and Joseph is made a difference for that unit(just as Landry, Lowery and Coleman did for the Jaguars). But now that Manning is sidelined with an ankle injury, their might problems at the safety position. The Jaguars will face Troy Nolan (or rookie Shiloh Keo) at FS, and Mike Thomas’ best friend, Glover Quin at SS. I think if this match up can’t bring back the ’10 version of Marcedes Lewis, then nothing can. This could be the maybe only major advantage for the Jaguars and I hope offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will try to use it. At corners Johnathan Joseph is playing very, very well. Meanwhile the Texans 1st round pick a year ago, Kareem Jackson is slowly but improving. That not means he can’t be tested. I thing with Manning missing, the Jaguars must do something at the passing game. If Blaine Gabbert gets enough protection from his O-line, he must start to make (big) plays with his receivers. I know the Jaguars wideouts have serious drop issues as well (the last 2 of that bad series were seen at the Ravens end zone on Monday night by Greg Jones, and Marcedes Lewis), but Gabbert’s 4,3% completion percantage in pretty awful (and he is dead last with that among the current starting QBs in that category). Not to mention right now he has exactly the same WR group (plus Jarrett Dillard & Cecil Shorts) David Garrard reached a franchise record in thrown TD passes last season… Speaking of  receivers I noticed that Mike Sims Walker had quite a lot snaps in his ‘homecoming’ game (58 of the possible 68) while Mike Thomas played only 30 offensive snaps. I really don’t understand that move. I would play Thomas, Sims-Walker and Hill all together more. The other WR move I didn’t understand is why was Cecil Shorts active and why was Jarrett Dillard inactive? Shorts still has no catch after 7 games (and thankfully – he didn’t returned punts on Monday night either). Dillard at least contributing when he is targeted. I know the Jaguars want Shorts to get going, but I say play those players who are performing/deserving to play opposite to those who have ‘potentials’. Sadly Cecil Shorts is right now looking very similar to Chad Owens, Troy Williamson, Nate Hughes or Tiquan Underwood. They were shown flashes in training camp or pre season games, but never were factors in the regular season. I hope Cecil can prove very soon, that I’m wrong with this(but not this week, since he is ruled out from the Texans game). Bottom line is, Gabbert and his receivers better must make plays. They are ranked 32nd in the league averaging 128.4 yards a game. only 4 yards more then the Jaguars running game got per game. 12 points in average will not win many games. Just in this game I think the Jaguars might score at least a double of that to have a chance to win!

Now let’s turn the attention to the Texans offense, which was always their calling card in the last few seasons. This year is not different and they are more powerful then ever. Their probably best player, WR Andre Johnson will not play on Sunday, and still they have plenty of weapon the Jaguars must somehow stop. Now that Johnson is out, I think the most important thing for defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is to stop Houston’s very powerful ground game. Wait, what? Yes, The Texans are the 5th best rushing team, thanks to Arian Foster and Ben Tate who have the 4th and 5th most rushing yards in AFC. Foster last week had a 100+ yards in rushing and receiving last week against the Titans. Meanwhile Tate is averaging 5.1 yards/carry! Let’s not forget, that the Jaguars have issues with a team who had not 1 but 2 powerful backs. They usually stop one of them, but the other always has a great(’10 Giants – Brandon Jacobs, Raiders – Darren McFadden, ’11 – Panthers – Jonathan Stewart, Saints – Darren Sproles). I’m not expecting that the Jaguars can shut down Foster and Tate this time either(the defense is good, but not that good yet). Also now that Andre Johnson I expect that Houston QB Matt Schaub will target hiss back in the passing game more.

More bad news for the Jaguars – even without Johnson, the Texans still have left plenty of weapons in the passing game still. The Texans has 6 players who had more then 100 receiving yards other then their Nr. 1 wide out. Their best WR other then Johnson is Kevin Walter, who did enough harm lately against the Jaguars when the 2 teams played against each other In 6 games he recorded 418 yards and 4 TDs. But maybe the biggest threat of the passing game is right now their leading receiver, TE Owen Daniels. He had more catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns then Andre Johnson. It’s safe to say, he is by far the best TE in the AFC South in ’11, ad stopping him will be a huge challenge to Davon Landry and probably Paul Posluszny. Other possible targets are Jacoby Jones and the back-up TE Joel Dreessen, who might will see more action again with Johnson is out. Also the Texans recently traded for WR Derrick Mason, although he has no catch as a Texan, and he was not exactly a weapon for the Jets in ’11. The Jaguars could cause trouble for the Texans passing game, if they rush Schaub effectively, but there are a couple of problems with that. Now that Austen Lane is on IR, and John Chick is ruled out for Sunday, Jacksonville has 3 helathy DE left. One of them is Aaron Kampman, who is improving, but his form is still far from 100%. Most likely Jeremy Mincey must play the entire game (again) on Sunday, and Matt Roth will see 60-70% of the defensive snaps as well. Also bad news for the Jaguars that the Texans offensive line is playing quite good in this season. RT Eric Winston has a great season and a great game last Sunday vs. the Titans, just as center Chris Myers. If the Texans O-line can protect Schaub, it will be extremely difficult for the Jaguars defense to stop or at least limit his many-many targets for the entire game. However, if the Jaguars find a way to put pressure on Schaub, (for example with shutting down the Texans running game -which I don’t expect- and make the Texans offense 1 dimensional, they maybe have a chance. I think this match up is bigger then the Texans defense vs. the Jaguars offense, because the Jaguars defense must not jut limit Arian Foster and co, them must make this game a low scoring one. I just not see coming, that the Jaguars offense can score more points then 21(there season best is 20 against the Bengals), unless the Texans not shott themselves in the foot a couple of times(which they did many times lately in the games the 2 team played each other). And safe to say, I’m not expecting that the Jaguars ‘game without a defensive TD’ streak; which is at 50 right now and counting…; will end on Sunday.

In special teams last Monday the Jaguars played like the unit did most of the time in ’10. The return of Owens and Osgood (and Middleton, since Derek Cox took back his starting CB position) made the entire unit better. This week they’ll face another good returner, Jacoby Jones, who already scored a TD in a punt return. And since we speak about punts, as much as I didn’t liked that Mike Thomas role as a WR was downgraded, it was great to see him returning punts. Since Cecil Shorts is out for Sunday, he will do that again, and I expect 1-2 better returns from him. After 2 games I rate Nick Harris’ performance good, and if he keep playing like that in the rest of the season, I can see him as a long term solution for the position.

Now it’s time t predict. This game is very, very important. If the Jaguars somehow find the way the way to win this, they are going into their bye week with 3-5, and still 1 win away from the division leader, (with a tie braker advantage), with 8 games are left t play. All of sudden the Jaguars could look like a legitim contender for the divisional crown, which really big (and says everything about how ‘strong’ the AFC South is in this season, after a 5 game losing streak). However, if the Texans win this game, the momentum the Jaguars got from the Monday night victory will be erased and the gap between the Jaguars and the Texans would be 3 games. One thing is clear, in this game the defense alone will not save the Jaguars. Or Maurice Jones-Drew (except if he will have a smilar performance what Arian Foster -or Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray- had last Sunday). In this game the Jaguars can’t win with just field goals. Or with scoring 12-14 points. Blaine Gabbert and the passing game must help out this team (for the first time this season). If they win this game, and Jaguars can go to their bye week with the feeling that they still have a pretty decent shot to make the playoffs. Or lose this game and that would mean the team fall back to the whole they’ve been in the last weeks.

Prediction: Jaguars 21 – Texans 20  

Zoltan Paksa

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