Houston at Jacksonville - Sunday, Oct. 21, 1 p.m. - TIAA Bank Field
SERIES HISTORY: 33rd regular-season game. Houston leads series, 19-13. Since the series started in 2002, the teams have played a home-and-home series every year. Texans had won six straight in the series prior to last year when Jaguars swept both games, winning big by 38 points at home and 22 in the season opener in Houston. In the last seven years, it’s been a season sweep by one of the teams, five times by the Texans and twice by the Jaguars (2013, 2017). Jaguars are even at home (8-8) but have struggled in games at Houston (5-11). In the Jaguars win at home (45-7) last year, it marked the most points scored in the 32-game history, and was the largest point differential in the series and was the Jaguars largest margin of victory ever against a divisional opponent.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have looked like anything but Super Bowl contenders the last two weeks. Getting outscored 70-21 by the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys, the Jaguars are doing a mini version of training camp this week, i.e. they are going back to the basics, to the fundamentals that were drilled into them the first couple weeks of August.
Head Coach Doug Marrone hinted on Monday that the team would need to do that, that everyone from players to the coaching staff to himself would have to get back to the fundamentals.
“Fundamentally, we have gotten away from some things and that is on us as coaches,” Marrone said. “What I have challenged the coaches and I challenged myself with this week is, ‘Hey listen, we have to get back to fundamentals. We have to stick with something that we can sink our teeth in and this way we can go out there and just perform.’ I think that teams have done a good job with chip [blocks]. Teams have done a good job against us and that’s not an excuse. We have to find a better way to get ourselves in good position and we have to find a better way to teach our players to defeat blocks.”
“When I talk about how I look at ‘us’, me and the coaches have to do a better job of the little things, the fundamentals, technique. Scheme, that will take care of itself, but let’s get back to where we can run, block, tackle and function before we start over-scheming and overdoing things.”
Sure enough, Wednesday’s practice put an emphasis on getting the basics down pat. It was like a return to the opening weeks of training camp where fundamentals of doing things the right way were stressed.
Quarterback Blake Bortles thinks the message struck home.
“ I think Doug and the coaches did a good job of pushing us and making sure we are getting the quality work that we need to get done at this point in the week to be ready to go on Sundays,” Bortles said following Wednesday’s practice. “It is all part of our weekly preparation and Coach Marrone felt as those we needed to push that a little bit and that is what we did today. I thought it went well. I thought we got a lot of good reps in. It is obviously hotter as you know, so that’s the camp feel of running that many reps in the heat and doing all of that. It was good. I thought the guys looked good. I thought everybody ran around and, for the most part, was in the right places they needed to be. If they weren’t, we got it corrected and went through it again.”
Bortles is one who knows that he has to play better. After playing well in three of the first four games Bortles hasn’t been sharp the last two outings. Granted he passed for his career high of 430 yards against Kansas City, a good portion of those yards came when the game was out of reach. He had a season-low 54.7 rating in that game, due mainly to his four interceptions and only one touchdown.
The effort against Dallas last Sunday wasn’t up to his standards either. He passed for just 149 yards with one TD and one pick. His rating improved slightly to 70.8 but nowhere near the triple-digit postings he had earlier this year against New England and the Giants.
Marrone thinks Bortles -- and others -- are trying to do too much.
“He, along with a lot of other players. It is not just him. It is a receiver catching the ball and trying to extend or spin or trying to make these unbelievable plays. I have had that happen with players my whole career. Great players too. Offensive lineman, selling all out, trying to overthink things too much. The quarterback knowing that we need a play trying to make a play and throw it maybe where it shouldn’t be thrown.
“You can go down the line at every position. Defensive lineman, ‘I think they are going to pass. I am going to rush up the field,’ and they run a run and we get beat in the gap. A linebacker thinking I am going to do this and not read my key and go ahead. A [defensive back] coming across going, ‘if I do it this way I might get a pick’. Those are all the things that lead to being exposed. I am not going to say that you can’t overcome things or you might not get a pick or you might not make that play. Those things occur. If you continue and you play like that and you force those things and not just go out there and play then bad stuff happens. That is my experience. I am talking only for myself here. That is how I feel.”
All of which makes Sunday’s game with Houston that much more important. It’s the Jaguars second AFC South opponent this season and after losing to the Tennessee Titans in their first divisional game, they can’t afford a second loss in the division to the second of the three co-leaders. The Jaguars, Titans and Texans all share the top spot with 3-3 records. A loss would be the second division game at home and leave the Jaguars winless in two home games with three of the final AFC South games on the road.
The Texans come to town riding a three-game winning streak after losing their first three games to start the season. The Jaguars are reeling with three losses in their last four games. Both teams desperately want a victory, Houston to keep their winning streak intact, the Jaguars to right a ship that is drifting out of control.
Whether the Jaguars retain enough of a grasp on the fundamentals that were stressed this week, could very well determine which direction their season will go.
--They say that over time, injuries in the NFL have a way of evening out. Get hit with a lot of injuries one season, a team may escape with minimal damage in that area the following season. In the Jaguars case, they are offsetting what was a mild, injury-season in 2017 by getting hit hard with season-ending injuries this year. A year ago, the Jaguars placed just six players on injured reserve once the season started. The biggest loss was wide receiver Allen Robinson who suffered a torn ACL in the season-opener. But the other five guys were all backup players with the exception of starting long-snapper Matt Overton who was filling in for normal starter at that spot Carson Tinker. Tinker went on IR the first week of training camp.
The Jaguars have not been so fortunate with injuries this year. Two more players were sent to IR this week, including starting tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins along with reserve TE Niles Paul. That makes eight players who were either starters or key reserves, now on IR, seven of whom were added since the second game of the regular season. Starting wide receiver Marqise Lee went on IR after the second preseason game, but the other seven made their way to the IR list since mid-September. Seferian-Jenkins is the only one who could return to the lineup this year, but that wouldn’t be before December.
Jaguars coach Doug Marrone tried to rational all the injuries that the Jaguars have incurred this season.
“I think it’s easy to see or easy to say or easy to stand up here and talk about the, ‘Woah is me’ aspect of injuries. I really do,” the Jaguars coach said. “I think when you look around the league, you see a lot of them here and there. Maybe not as many at a position or one side of football, but at the same time, there has to be some sort of rally, meaning that whatever those clichés are … The common one is ‘next man up.’ We have said that all the time. But there are a couple things that have to go into it.
“I believe that you have to rally, meaning that the people that are coming in there, [they have to] support them, help them, get them in the situation. Level of awareness steps up. Everything kind of steps up a little bit. Getting those guys in there and truly being excited about it and truly wanting to go out there and be able to perform with the players that are on the field. Make something happen rather than to say, ‘Well, we are in trouble because of this or we are in trouble because of that.’ Once you start thinking like that, you are never going to be able to fight your way out of it. Right now, we are trying to fight our way.”
--Ereck Flowers is hoping that a new city, a new locker room, a new opportunity will be the key to getting his career back on track. Flowers was released by the New York Giants after the team’s sixth game, a month after he lost his starting job to Chad Wheeler. Prior to that, Flowers had stared 46 games in three seasons ever since he was a 2015 first-round selection (9th overall) by the Giants.
“Great opportunities, great team and I’m happy to be here,” Flowers said after he signed a one-year contract with the Jaguars. “Definitely a fres start for me. I like it here, man. I think this will be a better fit. They have a great locker room, great guys. I’m grateful to be here.”
Flowers had no idea he would be a member of the Jaguars after opening the season at right tackle against the Jaguars. In that game, he was assessed a tripping penalty when Jacksonville defensive end Calais Campbell beat him on a pass play. Later in the same series, Flowers was assessed a holding penalty when he again tried to slow up Campbell’s pass rush. It was the first of two bad games for Flowers who also struggled the following week against Dallas. He was benched after that and saw minimal action the last four games before the Giants gave up on him.
“The thing about playing against [the Jaguars], there was no drop off,” Flowers told the Florida Times-Union. “It was like everybody was good on the defensive front. Everyone had to hold their own. But they brought a lot of energy and you could tell they were really a tight group.”
Flowers was inactive last week against Dallas having just signed with the Jaguars days before. But he’ll have had a full week of practice prior to the Houston game on Sunday, and could start or relieve Josh Walker in the lineup if the latter continues to struggle against the Texans.
--A year ago, Jacksonville hit proverbial jack pot in free agency. DE Calais Campbell and CB A.J. Bouye were Pro Bowl participants, SS Barry Church solidified the secondary and Lerentee McCray was a standout special teams player. But this year’s group of free agents have not helped nearly as much. Right guard Andrew Norwell had an elite season with the Carolina Panthers in 2017 which led to his being named to the Pro Bowl team. But he hasn’t been close to repeating as the dominant player that he was a year ago, in fact it’s anything but. He’s already given up two sacks after not surrendering any last year, has been called for several penalties and has not been an overwhelming blocker in the run game. That’s not what the Jaguars had in mind for him when they signed him to a 5-year deal worth $66.5, including a guaranteed $30 million.
Wide receiver Donte Moncrief has also been a disappointment. He signed a one-year, $9.6 million guaranteed deal with a long-term contract waiting for him if he lived up to expectations. As of now, Moncrief won’t be getting an offer from the Jaguars to re-sign. He’s emerged with 18 catches (none last week) for 249 yards and two touchdowns. That amounts to an average of 3 catches 41.5 yards per game, hardly the numbers the Jaguars were looking for from him.
Another free agent Cody Davis has played well on special teams but three other free agents have or will be spending more time on injuries than helping the Jaguars. Cornerback D.J. Hayden was signed to be the nickel back replacement for the departed Aaron Colvin. But after the opener against the Giants in which he played well, Hayden was injured in practice two days before the Tennessee game and has now missed four straight games. The free agent acquisition during this past offseason was tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins who after playing through a core muscle injury, has now been put on reserve-injured list. He could possibly return yet this year, but if so it won’t be until the last quarter of the schedule in December.
BY THE NUMBER: 34.5 – The number of combined sacks by DE Yannick Ngakoue and DL Calais Campbell since the beginning of the 2017 season, the most by any teammates in the NFL during this time. Ngakoue and Campbell combined for 8.0 sacks in two games against the Texans last year.