AFC South rivals try to right the ship after disappointing Week 1 losses
The 2019 season didn't kick off the way the Jacksonville Jaguars or Houston Texans had envisioned. Jacksonville, with a new $88 million quarterback in Nick Foles and a refocused defense, was hoping to make waves with a Week 1 upset of the Kansas City Chiefs. Instead, the Jags lost their new quarterback for the foreseeable future and their home opener in embarrassing fashion.
The Texans, now the favorites to win the AFC South, suffered a heartbreaking and very preventable loss to the New Orleans Saints on "Monday Night Football." The defeat wasn’t a season-defining one, but it highlighted the inept roster management that has plagued the franchise for the last few seasons.
The Jags and Texans now face one another in an all-important division matchup in Week 2. The Jags get to find out about their new rookie quarterback, and the Texans get to see if they can keep their franchise quarterback off the NRG Stadium turf.
Jacksonville at Houston
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 15 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Texans -9
Three Things to Watch
1. Introducing... Gardner Minshew?
It’s safe to say that the Jaguars weren’t expecting their sixth-round draft pick to start at quarterback in Week 2 when they selected him with the 178th pick in this spring's draft. But, here we are, and here's Minshew, the new rookie starting quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The same guy who stretches in the locker room wearing nothing but his shades and a jockstrap, the same dude with the beautiful mustache and American flag bandana, and the same fella with an uncanny resemblance to Johnny Ringo from Tombstone, is the NFL's newest starting QB.
Minshew took over in last week's home loss to the Chiefs after Foles broke his left clavicle (ouch!) on the second drive of the season. Minshew turned out to be the lone bright spot in the Jags' loss, completing 22-of-25 passes with two touchdowns and one interception — a three-yard tunnel screen that somehow bounced off Leonard Fournette's face. By day's end, he set two NFL records by completing his first 13 pass attempts and having the highest completion percentage for a quarterback making his debut and attempting at least 15 throws (88 percent). Granted, those numbers were put up when the game was essentially out of reach, but that's still pretty, pretty, pretty good for a sixth-round rookie or anyone, really.
Fournette and the rest of the Jacksonville backs and receivers better get used to catching passes from Minshew, because for at least the next nine weeks, he's the guy running the show — and the Jags seem to be okay with that. All week long, teammates and coaches have been praising the rook from Washington State (and East Carolina and Northwest Mississippi Community College) for his poise, energy, and leadership. Whether Minshew can keep the Jaguars season afloat while Foles heals remains to be seen, but the mustachioed man from Flowood, Miss., is going to get his shot long before anyone could have guessed.
2. Protecting Deshaun Watson
Last season, the Texans did such a poor job of protecting their franchise quarterback that at one point doctors wouldn't let Watson fly on the team plane for fear of cabin pressure agitating an already painful chest injury. Watson is the NFL's most hit quarterback of the last two seasons and was sacked a league-high 62 times in 2018.
It was more of the same for Watson against the Saints on Monday night as he was sacked six times, hit 11 times and pressured on 45 percent of his throws. Despite the New Orleans bombardment, Watson kept his cool and his team in the game, delivering what should have been the game-winning touchdown pass to the newly acquired Kenny Stills with 37 seconds left in the game.
Texans head coach and de facto general manager Bill O’Brien had to make a move to shore up his offensive line and protect his star QB. Trading two first-round picks and a second-rounder to the tanking Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and Stills was O'Brien’s (or someone's?) solution. While Tunsil is a fine addition, he can only play one position at a time for an O-line that is shuffled and injured. Tunsil is the only change from last season's Texans starting offensive line, the same one that gave up 3.9 sacks per game last year.
Remember when Houston traded all-pro tackle Duane Brown to Seattle in 2017 for... **checks notes**... a second- and third-round pick? It's almost like this team needs a functioning GM to figure out how to construct a roster and prevent further injury to their cornerstone quarterback. It's almost like no one in Houston has ever heard of Ryan Grigson before.
Anyway, expect Jags defensive coordinator Todd Wash to blitz the ever-loving heck out of Watson on Sunday afternoon.
3. Can either defense rebound?
Last Sunday wasn't a banner performance for either team's defensive unit. Houston completely fell apart, allowing 27 second-half points and permitting the Saints to get into game-winning field goal position in the game's final 37 seconds.
Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's game plan of not pressuring the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards shockingly did not work. Drew Brees picked apart the Texans and their lackluster three-man rush that left Houston's already mediocre secondary exposed. Brees wasn't hit by a Houston defender until the middle of the third quarter.
To compound matters, J.J. Watt had arguably the worst game of his career — no tackles, no sacks, no QB hits. His name is not even listed on the game's box score. Watt wasn't there — and neither was Jadeveon Clowney. (Burn.) Needless to say, Crennel and the Texans defense should be dialing up plenty of blitz packages against the young and inexperienced Minshew on Sunday.
Houston's defensive performance last week was a letdown, but the Jaguars' was bordering on anemic. Sure, everyone gets lit up by Patrick Mahomes & Co., but most defenses at least force more than one punt in a game. The Jags had no answer for Mahomes in the first half, as the reigning MVP threw for more than 300 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Chiefs on seven straight scoring drives. To make matters worse, linebacker and captain Myles Jack was ejected for taking a swing at an opposing player's face (while said opponent was wearing a very hard helmet) and ejected from the game in the second quarter. The ejection was bad and the ensuing temper tantrum was worse, but still not as bad as Jacksonville's secondary, which looked lost for all four quarters against the Chiefs. Jacksonville has to clean it up on the defensive side of the ball or Watson and the Texans receivers will have a field day.
The Texans are easily the more talented team between the two. Their loss on Monday night, while avoidable, wasn't a backbreaker but certainly exposed the team's soft spots. The Jags, meanwhile, are in a conundrum without Nick Foles. Unless Gardner Minshew turns into the next backup-turned-superstar, a la Tom Brady, it will be hard to measure their success this season, if they have any. If Houston can protect Deshaun Watson and force Minshew into rookie mistakes, there is no reason that the Texans can't win and cover the spread in their home opener.
Prediction: Texans 32, Jaguars 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.