Two AFC South bottom-dwellers clash in Houston
If there was ever an NFL game that embodied the popular Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man meme — it's this one. Two of the worst teams in the league, the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3) and the Houston Texans (0-4), will try to right their respective ships against one another this Sunday in Houston. Both are led by young, dynamic, and flawed quarterbacks. Neither team runs the ball, typically because they're usually both losing. And both of them are pretty darn bad when it comes to playing defense.
After starting the season with an opening week upset over the Colts, the Jags quickly fell back to earth and have dropped their last three games, the last two by a combined 26 points. Jacksonville's already over-matched defense has been riddled with injuries and surrendered 505 yards of total offense to the Bengals last week. Gardner Minshew and Co. enter Sunday's game with a four-game losing streak against their AFC South rivals.
It seems there is never a dull moment in the Houston Texans' front office these days. On Monday, the team fired head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien after an 0-4 start. In six-plus seasons, O'Brien led Houston to four AFC South titles and leaves as the franchise's only head coach with a winning record in its short history.
But it wasn't necessarily O'Brien's game management that got him canned. His short stint as GM, a job that ownership never should have given him in the first place, and his tenuous relationships with star players are what ended the O'Brien tenure. It certainly felt like the moves to get rid of Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins were vindictive on O'Brien's part, and it seems he finally lost the team's trust after a reported blow-up with J.J. Watt a few weeks ago. Trading away the team's first two draft picks in 2021 for the right to overpay Laremy Tunsil didn't help his cause, either.
In O'Brien's place, associate head coach Romeo Crennel will take over as interim head coach. At 73, Crennel, who is 28-55 in his career as a head coach (for the Browns from 2005-08 and Chiefs from '11-12), is set to become the oldest head coach in NFL history.
Jacksonville at Houston
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 11 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Houston -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jags' pass D... non-existent
The 2020 Jaguars defense is a far cry from where they were just a few seasons ago. In 2017, the Jags allowed 16.8 points per game, good for second in the NFL. In 2018, that number was just 19.8 points per game. While only four games into 2020, Jacksonville is currently on pace to have its worst defensive season in franchise history. The Jags currently rank 22nd in both total yards (399.5) and points (29.3) allowed per game, while opponents are scoring on 55 percent of their offensive possessions, the second-highest rate in the league. They've only forced three turnovers with just one takeaway in the last three games.
Opposing quarterbacks have been picking apart the Jags all season long, completing a league-high 77 percent of their passes and posting a 112.6 rating. Jacksonville's defense is tied for 31st in the league with just four sacks. Going into Week 4, Joe Burrow had been sacked a league-leading 14-times behind a porous, shuffled, and banged-up Bengals offensive line. The Jags hardly made the rookie sweat as he dissected them for 300 yards and a touchdown. Jacksonville's single sack on the day was that in name only, as Burrow gave himself up at the line of scrimmage while scrambling.
Sunday, the Jags have a chance to redeem themselves against a happy-footed Deshaun Watson and a Houston offensive line that has allowed more sacks (16), and at a higher rate (11 percent of dropbacks), than any other team this year.
2. And while we're talking about defenses...
...the Texans' rushing defense is pretty bad, too. They're dead last in both rushing yards (181.8 per game) and first downs (44) allowed. Last week, Dalvin Cook torched the Texans for 130 yards and two touchdowns, averaging nearly five yards per carry. Houston conceded 14 rushing first downs to Minnesota, a big reason why the Vikings had the ball more 13 minutes more than the Texans. That sure sounds like a defense that could use the services of a Clowney-type run-stopper, or perhaps a future first- and/or second-round pick in the upcoming draft. As a tea-sipping Kermit the Frog would say, "... but that's none of my business."
Houston faces a Jacksonville offense this week that doesn't run much, ranking 30th in the league with only 87 attempts. However, when the Jags do run, they're effective, averaging 4.8 yards per carry — seventh in the league. Jacksonville's starting running back, undrafted rookie James Robinson, has been a pleasant surprise this season, currently ranking ninth overall and rushing (285 yards), averaging nearly five yards per carry and giving Minshew a viable check-down option out of the backfield (14 receptions, 161 yards). Look for Robinson to have his first 20-carry game and maybe even pick up his first career touchdown catch.
3. Minshew doing more with less
If nothing else, Sunday's game should be a fun showcase for two of the game's more interesting, young quarterbacks in Watson and Minshew. We know Watson is an extremely talented, franchise-level quarterback who can carry a team into the playoffs for years to come. But I want to focus your attention on Minshew.
Minshew's ceiling is likely lower than Watson's, but that doesn't mean he can't also be a franchise level quarterback. In fact, Minshew is playing well enough to tell the "Tank for Trevor" crowd to shove it, and he's proving that last year's moderate success wasn't a fluke.
Minshew is currently among the top 10 this season in completions (106), passing attempts (147), passing yards (1,138), touchdowns (8), and completion rate (72.1 percent). He's thrown multiple touchdown passes in three of four games this season, has increased his completion percentage by 12 points from a year ago, and is on pace to throw 11 more touchdowns than in 2019.
Of course, the Uncle Rico look-alike is far from perfect. While less athletic, his game's flaws are actually similar to Watson's. They both take too long to read defenses, often resulting in sacks of their own doing (13 for Minshew, league-high 16 for Watson). Both make several throws per game that just kind of make you say, "Uh, what?" The kind of throws that kill drives and expose receivers running across the middle.
But the fact is, Minshew is doing more with less this season compared to Watson. Looking over the names of Jacksonville's skill players would likely garner the same reaction as the Indians' spring training roster from "Major League." Of Minshew's top seven targets this season, none of them have ever made an All-Pro team or been to a Pro Bowl. None of them are first-round draft picks. Three of them played college ball at the FCS level (Robinson, Keelan Cole, James O'Shaughnessy). Two of them were undrafted (Cole, Robinson). Two of them are rookies (Laviska Shenault Jr., Robinson). One of them is an undrafted rookie (Robinson). And only one of them has ever had more than 50 catches in a season (DJ Chark Jr.).
Despite their relative anonymity, six of those seven receivers have at least 10 catches. The seventh, O'Shaughnessy, has nine. And six of those same seven targets are averaging at least 10 yards per catch.
It's certainly a long shot that the Jags pull themselves out of the AFC South cellar anytime this season, but since the Jets and Giants exist, it's likely they won't fall to the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft, either. So maybe, just maybe, this is Minshew's team going forward after all. And if the mustachioed wonder continues to show improvement over time, this could be one of the more fun quarterback duels in the league for years to come.
Historically, Deshaun Watson has played extremely poor against the Jaguars. In five career games versus Jacksonville, he's averaged just six yards per pass attempt and 167 passing yards, completed just 62 percent of throws, and been sacked 16 times. There's no time like the present for Watson to turn it around against a Jags defense struggling to keep their head above water. It's hard not to think that a fresh start under interim head coach Romeo Crennel gives the Texans a little jolt and their first win on the season, but not by much.
Prediction: Texans 27, Jaguars 25
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.