As I was watching the game, I tried to remember the last time I watched Jacksonville play. It may actually have been their last playoff game following the 2007 season. Surely, I must have caught one of their games in the last decade?
Anyway, if – like me – the Jacksonville Jaguars have flown beneath your radar for the last few years, you should know that things are a bit different there these days.
First of all, there is a newish head coach. Jack Del Rio hasn’t been here since 2011. The head coach during most of the lost years between was Gus Bradley. In four almost complete seasons (2013-2016) his teams never won more than 5 games. The team is now entrusted to Doug Marrone, who started to turn Buffalo around a few seasons ago.
The defense has been refurbished. Last year’s first-round draft pick – cornerback Jalen Ramsey – has given Jacksonville an attitude in the secondary. He has been complimented this year by the additions of cornerback A.J. Bouye (who was an important part of Houston’s very good secondary last year), safety Barry Church (who came over from Dallas), and defensive end Calais Campbell (who was in Arizona last year).
And now, all of a sudden, there is a semi-legitimacy to the Jaguar defense (semi-legitimate because they allowed 569 rushing yards over the three consecutive games before Sunday).
The offensive concept is kind of new, too. Less passing from quarterback Blake Bortles and more handing off to this year’s first-round draft pick, running back Leonard Fournette. At 240 pounds (listed) Fournette is constructed along the lines of the power backs of old – the kind that wears away at the will of the defensive secondary to tackle him in the fourth quarter.
The re-birth in Jacksonville has been somewhat hit and miss so far. They have losses to teams that you should think they would have beaten (Tennessee and the NY Jets). They’ve had one game where they turned the ball over 3 times – but that was the only game that they’ve turned it over more than once. Only once have they gained more than 313 offensive yards, while serving up at least 371 yards on defense three times in their first five games. So there is some work that still needs to be done there.
Last Sunday, they engaged in a very interesting matchup against a somewhat similar Pittsburgh team. As the two teams hit the field Sunday afternoon, both featured high-octane running games and tough secondaries that challenge every pass. Both also featured suspect run defenses. The Jaguars had just been chewed up for 256 yards by the Jets (of all people). The week before that Chicago (of all people) had drilled the Steelers for 222 rushing yards – although it should be noted that that was the only game so far that they had allowed more than 91 rushing yards.
The way this game was expected to play out, the two running games would take turns bashing each other’s defenses, until Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would take advantage of enough opportunities downfield to give Pittsburgh enough margin that Jacksonville would be forced into a passing game. That story line never developed.
Instead, it was only Jacksonville that followed the expected game plan. Of their 32 first-half offensive plays, 18 ended up being runs. They gained only 3.3 yards per rush, but they kept running. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh never did really get back to Le’Veon Bell, who carried the ball only 9 times in the first half. Thinking that they could open up the running game with an early passing attack, Ben threw the ball 21 times in the first half, with mostly tepid results (12 of 21 for 152 yards and an interception).
The Steeler strategy further dissolved in the second half, when consecutive possessions ended in deflected passes that wound up as interception touchdowns for Jacksonville. Suddenly, a game that was 7-6 at the half had turned into a 20-9 Jacksonville lead. Things went downhill for Pittsburgh after that. Bell finished the day with only 15 carries. Ben ended up throwing 55 passes and getting 5 of them picked.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville kept running. Fournette had 14 carries in the second half alone – the last one being the most memorable. Leonard burst off left tackle for a game icing 90-yard touchdown run. He finished with 181 of Jacksonville’s 231 rushing yards (on 37 attempts) in Jacksonville’s 30-9 conquest (gamebook).
Perhaps the most telling number to come out of that second half was 1. That was the number of passes thrown by Jacksonville quarterback Bortles. Once Jacksonville pushed to that 11-point lead, Blake never threw again – this includes hand-offs on a third-and-7 and a third-and-11.
There are, apparently, a lot of pieces in place in Jacksonville. One piece, I guess, that they are still looking for is that quarterback.
Up next for the Jaguars is a very interesting game against another franchise that is trying to rise from the ashes – the now Los Angeles Rams.
Meanwhile, in Houston . . .
While the Jags are probably still looking for their quarterback of the future, Houston thinks they have found theirs. Again.
Last year, that was going to be Brock Osweiler. Two years before that it was Ryan Fitzpatrick. Since about the midpoint of the 2013 season, when they finally figured out that Matt Schaub was not the man who would lead them to the promised land, they have cycled a lot of quarterbacks in and out of Houston.
The newest quarterback of the future is Deshaun Watson, the twelfth overall pick in this year’s draft. Around him they have crafted a clever, deception-based offense. I would guess that almost 40% of their offensive snaps Sunday night (at least until they were behind far enough that Kansas City knew they would have to drop back and pass) involved some end-around motion from a back or receiver circling back into the backfield. This was sprinkled in with a significant amount of zone-read looks.
The effect on the Houston running game – at least on Sunday night – was significant. Several times the backfield action proved just distracting enough to allow the Texans significant yards between guard and center. For the evening, Houston piled up 144 rushing yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
On the passing end, the numbers have been very kind to Watson. Through the first 145 passes of his professional career, Deshaun carries a 100.7 passer rating. This comes mostly through the virtue of his touchdown passes. He tossed 5 Sunday night, and now has 9 over his last two games, and 11 over his last three. It’s a very encouraging start, but Deshaun is far from a finished product.
His decision making – both in passing and in the read-option run game – was sometimes spotty. He wasn’t intercepted on Sunday night, but that wasn’t through lack of opportunity. Kansas City had a few should-have-been interceptions (two that would have been returned for touchdowns) that were dropped. Understand, I’m not saying Deshaun performed poorly. What I am pointing out is that the talented Mr. Watson is still a rookie quarterback, and there will be some growing pains along the way.
Speaking of Pain
On two of the most innocuous-looking plays of the season, during the game’s opening drive, two enormous presences in the Houston defense were deleted for the season. On the game’s seventh play, and after a seemingly uneventful pass rush, dynamic linebacker Whitney Mercilus knelt on the turf. Seemingly nothing major, Whitney suffered a torn pectoral muscle – ending his season. Seven plays later, superstar J.J. Watt went down just a little awkwardly on another seemingly uneventful pass rush. The result – a tibial plateau fracture that would require season-ending surgery. Such is the thin, thin line between an outstanding season and another bad-luck finish. Houston is a courageous team, led by a fine head coach in Bill O’Brien. But they will be challenged to plug two larger-than-life holes in their defense.
Watt’s exit was possibly the most heavily covered of any in recent NFL memory. The cameras followed every step of the way. We saw JJ hobble to the sidelines. We saw him going into and out of the medical tent. Watched him limp into the locker room; saw the ambulance waiting grimly for him outside the locker room. We had the haunting shot of JJ sitting inside the closed ambulance, his face framed perfectly through the back window by the emergency insignia of the ambulance door. We even had drone coverage of the ambulance’s arrival at the nearest hospital.
Over-done? I don’t think so. In his few short seasons in the NFL, JJ has exceeded simple legendary status. He is more than just the face of the franchise – not that that’s a small thing. He is one of the faces of the league. Even more than that, he is kind of a symbol for Houston itself – especially in the wake of the recent natural disasters in the area. JJ Watt will leave a legend-sized hole in the Houston defense and in the entire NFL.
And Then There is Kansas City
While Houston was having one of its more heart-rending evenings of the young season, the Kansas City Chiefs kept on keeping on. With their informative and entertaining 42-34 win (gamebook) the Chiefs are 5-0 and the last undefeated team in the NFL.
How will this play out? They have looked unstoppable, but that kind of thing has been known to happen through the early weeks of a season. Quarterback Alex Smith has been playing on a level that most didn’t believe that he had in him. After 158 passes this season, Smith is completing 76.6% of them, averaging 8.80 yards per attempted pass, and he checks in with a convincing 125.8 quarterback rating that features a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-0.
Is he for real? Are the Chiefs for real? It’s too early, I think, to tell. Their recent success – and the recent struggles of the Steelers (discussed above) sets up a very interesting contest this Sunday as Kansas City hosts Pittsburgh. The Steelers are a proud franchise, not used to being picked on by the Jacksonville’s of the league, and they are bent on responding. Pittsburgh is also the team that ended Kansas City’s playoff run last year, when they invaded Arrowhead last January and escaped with an 18-16 victory (gamebook). In that game, Alex finished 20 of 34 for just 172 yards with 1 touchdown pass and one interception (a 69.7 rating).
Perhaps our understanding of both teams will be a bit clearer after next Sunday’s game.