JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for the 2017 regular-season opener against the Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston Sunday
1.Gotta block Watt – and more.Defensive end J.J. Watt is a huge concern for the Jaguars' offensive line. The three-time Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year is returning after missing 13 games last season with a back injury. But this is about the entire Texans' front – and about the offensive line being the Jaguars' most unsettled unit. That would be true even without rookie left tackle Cam Robinson making his first NFL start against one of the NFL's best pass rushes. It's perhaps the most difficult matchup the Jaguars' front will face this season; most expect it to be one-sided for the Texans. The Jaguars must run to win this season. They must protect quarterback Blake Bortles. Both are tall tasks. If the line accomplishes them, this game tilts the Jaguars' way.
2.Quarterback.If the offensive line is No. 1, Bortles is No. 2 – and perhaps even No. 1a. That's true no matter the opponent, but particularly against Houston. The Texans' front likely will create pressure; how Bortles handles it will be key. He must utilize the ability to extend plays that helped him regain the starting job after preseason competition. He must minimize interceptions. As importantly, he must protect the ball when under duress; his 11 lost fumbles the last two seasons were as damaging as his 34 interceptions. Playing a team such as the Texans is a challenge of nerves and patience for a quarterback. There will be pressure, but if Bortles can manage the game, and maintain possession, there will be opportunities. His ability to take advantage of them will be critical Sunday – and could set the tone for the season.
3.Pressure, pressure, pressure.The Jaguars' defense was good last season; it needs to be more than that this season – and specifically, it needs to win games. To do that, defenses must create big plays, turnovers and points. The key to being that sort of defense lies in the front seven. The team is confident the secondary will be very good; the presence of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye at corner make that likely. Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and end Calais Campbell figure to make it a good defense against the run in base situations. Can this defense create havoc on third-and-7? Can it make quarterbacks worry about the rush? Can it create sack/fumbles and tipped passes that lead to interceptions? Those questions will define the defense this season – and with Tom Savage making his third NFL start for the Texans at quarterback, could go a long way toward defining Sunday.
1.Run the football. This is so obvious your mom could offer it up, but it's perhaps the most critical element for the Jaguars on Sunday. Running the ball is at the core of their professed personality and running the ball is what first-round pick Leonard Fournette was born and drafted to do. Running the ball and running the ball well makes it easier for Blake Bortles. The not-so-obvious reason for running the ball is that is slows down a pass rush that is as fierce as you'll ever see. If they can't run the ball it could be a lost cause in Houston on Sunday. It's that important.
2.Protect the football. We don't know what to expect from the Jaguars on offense just yet. The same is true for the Texans, who will start Tom Savage at quarterback, play without left tackle Duane Brown and are down at least one receiver. This could be a very, VERY, low scoring game which puts a heavy emphasis on each and every possession. The Jaguars can't afford to give even a single possession away.
3.Pressure the quarterback. The Jaguars defense is going to be good on all three levels. They're big up front, fast in the secondary and have a pair of elite corners to lock down wide receivers. The Jaguars defense could be much better than good, maybe even special if they can find the kind of game changing pass rush they've lacked. Yannick Ngakoue is a sneaky pass rusher who knows how to get to the quarterback and Dante Fowler Jr. is an elite athlete who has the talent to wreck an offensive game plan. They should be able to pressure Savage, especially if Brown is out of the line-up. For the same reasons they don't want to turn the ball over they need to create turnovers to give a struggling offense an extra shot or two at putting points on the board.