JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Houston Texans at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville
1.Disrupting Deshaun Watson. This doesn't just mean sacking and hitting the Texans' second-year quarterback; it means containing him, too. The Jaguars have struggled in the last season and a half with mobile quarterbacks – and this season's losses have come to quarterbacks such as Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys. Those offenses to varying degrees have gotten quarterbacks outside the pocket to extend plays, and to get the Jaguars' aggressive defense out of position. Watson, who sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament last season, is rushing for 5.3 yards per carry this season compared to 7.6 yards last season – so he's perhaps not quite the threat outside the pocket as before the injury. Still, he evades the rush well enough to give the Jaguars problems – and getting quarterbacks outside the pocket figures to be a tactic teams use against the Jaguars until they do something to discourage it.
2.Scoring early. This is something every team wants to do, but it has taken on enormous importance for the Jaguars. They have started well offensively and taken first-quarter leads in all three victories this season – 20-9 at the New York Giants in Week 1, 31-20 at home against New England in Week 2 and 31-12 at home against the New York Jets in Week 4; they never trailed in any of those games. They have scored three total first-half points in their three losses this season – 9-6 at home to Tennessee in Week 3, 30-14 at Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5 and 40-7 at Dallas in Week 6; they never led in any of those games. The Jaguars' offense ran just 47 plays for 204 yards in a stunningly one-sided loss to Dallas, and the offense appeared to have no options against a very good Dallas defense. This feels like a similar matchup, with the Texans playing very well defensively – and with defensive end J.J. Watt returning to his 2015, pre-injury form. Getting their first come-from-behind victory of the season won't be an easy task for the Jaguars Sunday.
3.Blocking the Texans front. This figures to be a tricky task – and a key to the Jaguars getting offensive success. Watt has returned to his disruptive, Pro Bowl form after two injury-plagued seasons, and end Jadeveon Clowney also is a pass-rushing force. While linebacker Whitney Mercilus has started slower than Watt and Clowney, the Texans' three-headed pass rush makes Houston's defensive front as dangerous as any in the NFL. That group has enabled the Texans' defense to play at a high level in recent weeks despite a rash of injuries in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. Part of the reason for Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles' struggles recently: an injured offensive line allowed far more pressure against Kansas City and Dallas then it had in the season's first four games. Yes, the Jaguars need to run this week – and they would love to have running back Leonard Fournette back. But with or without Fournette, the Jaguars must somehow give Bortles a second or two more this week than he has had the past two games.
1.Create CHAOS around the quarterback. You may have heard that Watson can be a difference-maker – and he does have a strong arm. But he's getting killed behind a beat-up offensive line, having been hit 66 times and sacked 25 times in six games. Word is he gets flustered and makes situations worse by running into trouble. The guy has a cannon for an arm, is courageous and has a track record that says "winner" – but he has only started 12 games and never has played in Jacksonville. The Jaguars don't need 10 sacks … wait: yes, they do; if the Jaguars' defense can recreate the pressure and chaos it did in Houston in Week 1 last season, it can force turnovers and maybe find the end zone for just the second time this season. Chaos comes from the game plan and they must get after Watson with everything they have.
2.Find a way to keep the CHAOS at bay for Bortles. The Chiefs and Cowboys caused havoc for Bortles the last two weeks; he obliged them by turning the ball over six times. Let's face it: there's enough pressure on Bortles right now with the offense struggling to find anything it does well; now, the struggle gets even more real with Watt and Clowney visiting TIAA Bank Field. The offensive line must protect better than it has the last few weeks, which is asking a lot of a third – or perhaps the fourth – starting left tackle of the season, and a group that if not entirely injured is significantly banged up. The line must keep their quarterback on his feet and give him time to see the field if the Jaguars are going to avoid a repeat of last Sunday in Dallas.
3.Stop the slide. The Jaguars have been on a roller coaster this season: Big victories and disheartening losses with little in between. This has easily been the most difficult week this team has endured since Doug Marrone took over as head coach; the 40-7 whipping at the hands of the Cowboys had this team a little wobbly this week. The Jaguars are injured and having to change their approach on offense, but this is still one of the NFL's most talented defenses. Mix in a homefield advantage they've painstakingly rebuilt over the last season and a half and you have all the motivation you need to claim the top spot in the AFC South – or at least stay tied with the Titans at the top. Winning is obviously the bottom line, but stopping the downward trend is right behind on the priority list this week.