JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2023 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
John McClain – longtime Houston Chronicle NFL writer now with SportsRadio610.com – about the Houston Texans' matchup with the Jaguars at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday at 1 p.m.
Question: The Texans are 6-4, winning six of eight games beginning with a 37-17 Week 3 victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville. They have won three consecutive games and can tie the Jaguars for first place in the AFC South with a victory Sunday. How much of a surprise is this?
Answer: There's no maybe. They're definitely the biggest surprise in the NFL because they won three games last year and just about everybody had them to be the second worst team to Arizona this season. I tell people, "No, I'm not shocked. I'm flabbergasted." They started 0-2, then beat the Jaguars and the Pittsburgh Steelers back-to-back [in Weeks 3 and 4] and beat them bad, 67-23. Since that point, starting with the Jaguars, they're 6-2. Five of those victories have been decided in the last 20 seconds, including three games with no time left. They have been very hard on the heart, but it has been a humongous surprise. I thought it would be next year before they were competitive. I picked them to win six games and they're already won six. They've captivated the city. It's the first time they've been good since 2019 and to be this good under first-year Head Coach DeMeco Ryans has been pretty phenomenal. [Rookie quarterback] C.J. [Stroud] has gotten going, beginning with the Jaguars. He has been really good way beyond his years. The thing that has impressed people the most about this team is they've been very clutch. They come from behind and everybody has a growing confidence in Stroud.
Q: Stroud is the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year and could be in the conversation for Most Valuable Player with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. Assess him.
A: Once they got some continuity up front, they were able to protect him better. He was sacked 11 times in the first two games and he has been sacked 22 times overall. Until the last two games, he didn't have the benefit of a running game. Now he does. I asked Ryans last week for one thing that stands out about Stroud. He said "Accuracy." Then later he said, "Poise." He is very accurate. He has had three turnovers in the first eight games and has had six in the last two. He's not scared to fling it. As he said Sunday, "Steph Curry doesn't quit shooting and I'm going to keep [throwing]." In other words, it's not hurting his confidence. They have a lot of confidence in him. He has gotten better. People acted like he couldn't run. He showed when he has to run, he can run. Their receivers also have emerged. People say, "He's making great receivers." They're helping him, too. It's all come together because of him and he continues to get better. People are amazed at his maturity, but he has been coached great.
Q: The Texans have averaged nearly 150 yards rushing in the last two games. Why has that area improved?
A: Running back Devin Singletary has had to play – and all of a sudden the zone scheme that [offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik] has implemented, he (Singletary) figured it out. He rushed for 150 yards in a [Week 10] victory over Cincinnati and 112 in a [Week 11] victory over Arizona. It's the first time they've had a runner with back-to-back 100-yard games since 2018 with Lamar Miller. This is the first time they've had a three-game winning streak since 2018.
Q: You mentioned they're clutch as a team. Is that just Stroud? Is there more to it?
A: A lot of it starts with Ryans [who played linebacker for the Texans from 2006-2011]. He said this was his dream job. He comes to his dream job and it has worked. The city was so happy he came home. It starts with him. When you're in the locker room, people are happy to go to work every day. The whole attitude of this team has changed under him. It's just a much more confident team right now.
Q: Ryans has a defensive background. What are the Texans defensively?
A: They have made the biggest improvement on run defense. They were last in run defense last season by long shot at 170.2 [yards rushing allowed] a game. All of a sudden, Ryans comes in here with players going down, with injuries constantly – they're signing guys off the street – but they're eighth against the run. I'm still blown away by that. They're giving up 96.5 yards a game. They've gone from 170.2 to 96.5. A lot of that's coaching. They've done a great job at shutting down the run. They've gotten a good pass rush, but not a great one. They have 24 sacks. Ryans wants to rush with four. He will blitz every now and then, but they primarily get their pass rush with four so they drop everybody.
Q: You say this city is at a fever pitch. This is a big game for Houston and this team, just like it is for Jacksonville and the Jaguars.
A: It's a huge game, the biggest since a [22-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills in an AFC Wild Card Playoff] game after the 2019 season because they just haven't played any big games like this. The fans know, everybody knows, if you beat the Jaguars, you tie for first and you have the tiebreaker advantage. If you lose, you're two games behind. The Jaguars beat the Texans bad in Houston last year, but they Texans are a whole lot better team. And I look for this to be this big. Peter King [of NBC Sports] wrote [this week] that who would've thought that Jaguars and Texans would be playing one of the biggest games on Thanksgiving weekend? That's a fact.