A lot has changed since these two teams last played against one another. Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans featured two of the worst pass defenses in NFL history. This season, they have both made great strides as the Jaguars are coming off of a dominating defensive performance against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, while the Texans have really taken well to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ new 3-4 scheme. The Texans (4-3) are looking to prove they are the favorites in a suddenly weak AFC South, while the Jaguars (2-5) will try to sneak back into the playoff race.
On the offensive side of the ball, both teams will want to establish their running game. The Texans lead the league with 33 rushing attempts/game, while the Jaguars are second with 32 rushing attempts/game. The difference offensively this season has been quarterback play. Matt Schaub remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league and Jacksonville is still hoping for rookie Blaine Gabbert to flash the potential they expected after trading up to select him with the 10th pick in the draft. If they want to make a midseason move in the division, they need Gabbert to mix in a few key throws in order to complement the strong running game and defense.
1) Battle in the Trenches: Texans Offensive Line vs. Jaguars Defensive Line
As mentioned, the Texans will want to run the ball, and who better to run behind than the best center in the league. Whether moving nose tackles backwards or attacking linebackers at the second level, Chris Myers (+17.1) has been a dominant force in the Texans’ zone running scheme. His +15.1 run block rating is by far the best of any lineman in the league, regardless of position. He’ll see a lot of defensive tackle “Pot Roast” Terrance Knighton (+4.2 Run Defense) this week. Myers got the best of their Week 17 battle last year, but Knighton is one of the more difficult defenders to push around consistently.
Myers’ strong play has helped mask the Texans’ weakness on the left side as Wade Smith (-15.2) and Duane Brown (-1.2) have struggled. They will each see a lot of defensive end Jeremy Mincey (+7.4) who is becoming one of the best three-down defensive ends in the league. Mincey has excelled against the run, contributing 13 stops and rushing the passer with 23 quarterback disruptions on 249 pass rushes. Mincey will kick inside to defensive tackle on passing downs, helping to keep him on the field for 91.9% of the team’s snaps this season, third highest amongst all 4-3 defensive ends. With him inside, watch out for third down pass rush specialist John Chick (+5.8 Pass Rush) who has contributed 15 quarterback disruptions on only 98 pass rushes this season.
2) Texans Wide Receivers vs. Jaguars Cornerbacks
Andre Johnson may return to action this weekend after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury. This is great news for the Texans whose wide receiver corps looks rather average without his production. Jacoby Jones (-1.8) and Kevin Walter (0.7) are solid complementary receivers, but neither provides the big play ability like Johnson. Johnson has four receptions on balls thrown beyond 20 yards in his four games, while Jones and Walter have combined for five all season.
These wide receivers will be challenged by a suddenly formidable Jaguars secondary. Rashean Mathis has played well in recent weeks, especially considering he has taken on the extra responsibility of chasing the other team’s best receiver. If Johnson plays, Mathis may get the nod to mirror him as well. The real potential gem of the secondary, though, is improving third year cornerback Derek Cox. Cox has a great size and speed combination, but he spent his first two years getting torchedAlthough Cox has only played three games this season, he is starting to live up to his potential, particularly last week when he was running stride for stride with speedy WR Torrey Smith of the Ravens. In limited time this season, opponents are only 4 for 14 for 32 yards throwing in Cox’ direction.
3) Blaine Gabbert vs. Texans’ Pass Rush
The Jaguars are certainly pleased with Monday night’s formula of power football and defense, but at some point, I’m sure they would like to see Gabbert make some plays under pressure. He tends to fade away from his throws, particularly when teams send extra rushers his way. He has now seen 59 blitzes on 169 dropbacks and he’s completing 42.6% of his passes at 3.7 yards/attempt. All told, his -7.5 PFF rating vs. the blitz just doesn’t cut it and this is not even counting whether or not the blitz actually forces pressure. If Gabbert senses the rush, he struggles.
Wade Phillips will be bringing his pressure package as the Texans have blitzed 53% of the time this season. They feature the league’s best pass rushers at two different positions. 3-4 defensive end Antonio Smith (+16.5 Pass Rush) has 29 quarterback disruptions on 218 rushes and linebacker Brian Cushing (+7.1 Pass Rush) has 22 quarterback disruptions on only 98 rushes. Cushing, in particular, is unique as he chooses to use his athleticism to sidestep blockers rather than taking them head on. The Texans will most certainly be sending the house at the rookie quarterback this week.
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