JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas
1.Protect the passer. This weekly key for the Jaguars will be particularly critical Sunday. Protection struggles have defined the offense in recent weeks, with an injured offensive line and the sometimes-hesitant decision-making of quarterback Cody Kessler conspiring for 19 sacks in Kessler's four starts. The Jaguars not only allowed six sacks in a 17-7 victory over Miami last week, they committed six holding penalties in a second half that prompted the second-half move to quarterback Blake Bortles and his escapability. The line's task Sunday gets no easier, with tackles Ereck Flowers and Patrick Omameh facing the Texans' dominant pass-rushing tandem of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Preventing the Texans' pass rush from ruining the game will be a monumental task. If the Jaguars do it, they have a chance. If they don't, Sunday's game could get ugly in a hurry.
2.Play with pride. This has been a weekly key for the Jaguars – and it may have been the most important element Sunday against Miami. An early Dolphins touchdown drive was easy enough it made the 7-0 deficit feel bigger, but the Jaguars' offense tied it with its second touchdown in four games – and the defense turned in one of its best efforts of the season in the final 55 minutes. The Texans have plenty of motivation Sunday, needing a victory to secure the AFC South title. They also have the carrot of playoff seeding. The Jaguars have a chance to play the spoiler role. Some teams embrace that sort of opportunity late in seasons. Others talk about it through the week only to have motivation fade when things go awry. Embracing the role will be more difficult for the Jaguars Sunday than last week, but they have the defense to make embracing it – and playing it – very possible.
3.Sneak a score (or two). Whoever the quarterback, the Jaguars' offense is struggling enough that 10-to-14 points Sunday would be an accomplishment. That means help in the form of field position and/or scores from the special teams and/or defense is needed. The Jaguars got a 74-yard punt return from wide receiver Dede Westbrook in a 16-13 loss to Washington in Week 15 and they got a 33-yard interception return from linebacker Telvin Smith against Miami. A third non-offensive touchdown in as many weeks is a lot to ask. But it's hard to imagine the Jaguars winning without one. They realistically may need one to keep it close and two to win. The best formula for this Sunday will be to pressure Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Houston line has allowed pressure, and he is capable of making errant throws and key mistakes. The Jaguars probably need to get a lead to force those kinds of errors, and that will be a major challenge on Sunday.
1.Better be clever. The Texans have an incredible defensive front. Watt and Clowney can do it all from anywhere on the field; blocking one usually takes an offensive coordinator all week to scheme while blocking both can take a guy out of his game entirely. That's exactly what the Jaguars must do Sunday to have any degree of productivity or efficiency on offense. Expect the Texans to sell out against the Jaguars' reconstituted offensive line and take away the ground game. That means Bortles will have to be able to do something in the passing game. Whether that's a tight-end screen or a double-reverse pass … who knows? Who cares? The Jaguars offense is missing six starters, five of them who contribute to blocking guys like Watt and Clowney. Any hope of scoring on the Texans must come from the trick-play section of the playbook.
2.Dominate on defense. The Jaguars' defense looked like the 2017 version of itself at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Sunday. The Jaguars clogged the lanes, rushed the passer, locked down the receivers and scored. They'll need all of that against Watson and Co. in Houston. The Texans had one good drive in a victory in Jacksonville earlier this season, taking advantage of a Jaguars offense that was shut down completely to win 20-7. Now, with their reconstituted offensive line, the Texans are forced to play to their defense more than they would like. The Jaguars' defense has played some of its best football late in the season with only the clunker a 30-9 loss at Tennessee. Look at how they controlled Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck as evidence of what they might be able to do against Watson. The only real hope the Jags have is if the defense can keep it close. That's possible if the defense stays on its late-season hot streak.
3.Special Teams are SPECIAL. The Jaguars' special teams have been very good the last few weeks, led by Westbrook's punt return touchdown against the Redskins and his 44-yard return in Miami. Mix in a blocked punt, punter Logan Cooke's emergence (he had a 63-yard field flipping kick against Washington and has set the franchise record for most punts downed inside an opponent's 20-yard line) and excellent coverage and you have something you can hang your hat on if you're Head Coach Doug Marrone. The Jaguars' best chance of winning is if they get a special teams or defensive touchdown, but what if they got one of each?