HOUSTON | Well, so much for those lowered expectations the Jaguars brought on with a highly suspect preseason.
Not only did they successfully get away from Hurricane Irma without a hitch, the 2017 Jaguars’ defense came to NRG Stadium and morphed into an NFL tornado resembling the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
Just the havoc Todd Wash’s unit wreaked on the Houston Texans in a resounding 29-7 victory Sunday would have been plenty satisfying. But throw in rookie sensation Leonard Fournette pounding his way for 124 total yards and quarterback Blake Bortles playing turnover-free, it all led to the Jaguars stunning everyone in this hostile road environment by looking like a postseason-bound team for the first time in forever.
Playoffs? Did I just insinuate playoffs? That will certainly be part of the potential overreaction after seeing the Jaguars’ 10-sack, four-turnover performance against the two-time defending AFC South champions.
Even coach Doug Marrone wouldn’t say if he envisioned this kind of game from his defense in his wildest dreams.
“I don’t know if I dream in my wildest dreams,” said Marrone. “Most of the time, I’m thinking about my wife [Helen] in my wildest dreams.”
The Jaguars were so good on defense, it inspired comic relief from a coach who couldn’t resist bringing a moment of levity, only moments after expressing thoughts and prayers for hurricane victims in both Houston and Florida.
Seriously, raise your hand if you saw this Texans’ beatdown coming. Put ‘em down, liars. You were just hoping it’d be a tight game into the fourth quarter, then maybe the Jaguars would pull it out at the end, right?
Instead, the Jaguars’ D played with incredible fury, inflicting so much pain that Texans tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin, along with receiver Bruce Ellington, exited the game by going into concussion protocol. On a day where star receiver Allen Robinson was sidelined on the opening series by a knee injury, which the team confirmed involved the ACL, the Jaguars cruised to one of their most impressive road wins in years.
“We played aggressive and with controlled anger,” said Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye, a former Texan and one of several key free agents the Jaguars acquired on defense the last two offseasons.
One of them, defensive lineman Calais Campbell, was an absolute beast, doing his own J.J. Watt impersonation with a franchise record 3.5 sacks in the first half alone. Another, safety Tashaun Gipson from the Cleveland Browns in 2016, had two pass breakups and a 67-yard interception return off rookie Deshaun Watson, who replaced the benched Tom Savage.
You have to go back almost two decades to find a game remotely as dominating on defense, to the 1999 Jaguars, who had the NFL’s best record at 14-2 and forced 30 turnovers.
“I’ve never been a part of a defense like that in eight years,” said safety Barry Church, a free agent acquired from the Dallas Cowboys. “That was first-class domination right there.”
“We’re not the ’85 Bears, we’re the 2017 Jaguars,” added cornerback Jalen Ramsey. “Make sure you write that. We ain’t no ’85 Bears. What are we supposed to do, man? I’m not surprised [by the large margin of victory]. I’m not going to say I’m surprised. It is what it is.
“We went out there and did what we’re supposed to do. That’s the moral of the story.”
Just two weeks after Houston went through the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, and while Irma was barreling through Florida, the Texans’ offensive line faced a different kind of punishment that should send warning signals through the AFC South and beyond.
It’s only one game, but the 2017 Jaguars just might be way better than all of us thought.
“I tried to motivate some guys, so that they can have something to be proud of while they’re going through whatever we’re going through,” said Campbell, signed from the Arizona Cardinals in March. “I don’t know how hard it’s going to hit or where it’s going to hit as far as the hurricane goes. This feels good to be able to show Duval [County] that they have something to be proud of this year.”
Here’s something already to be proud of: the Jaguars occupy first place alone in the AFC South for the first time since December, 2010. Monday is also the six-year anniversary of the last time this franchise was above .500, coming after a season-opening win over the Tennessee Titans.
“It’s so unfortunate it’s been that long,” said linebacker Paul Posluszny. “That’s why games like this feel so special because we haven’t had the success we all want. This new group can be the start of that.”
It’s been a long time coming. Several players were annoyed about a pregame narrative that the Texans’ top-ranked defense from 2016, especially with a healthy Watt back in the fold, would take advantage of a Jaguars offensive line that struggled all preseason.
It turned out the opposite happened. Not only did rookie offensive tackle Cam Robinson and the rest of the O-line keep Houston sackless, but the Jaguars’ defense totally befuddled Savage and Watson.
“They’re not talking about us at all, like we’re the same team of old,” said Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson. “It was a challenge for us to go out and smack them in the mouth. Just really let people know this is one helluva defense, especially up front.”
In a game that featured a combined 19 penalties for 183 yards, including eight for pass interference or defensive holding, the Jaguars won both the physical and mental battle in decisive fashion. Texans’ receivers Deandre Hopkins and Braxton Miller rarely got separation and when they did, neither quarterback had time to find them because the pocket was collapsing too quickly.
“Rush and cover work together,” said Church. “There were times when maybe a receiver got behind us, one of our defensive linemen got pressure and caused a turnover. When we were covering them up and a defensive lineman needs a couple extra seconds, they got that. They were able to capitalize. They weren’t going in there to get sacks, they were going in to get strip sacks.”
One sequence tells you all that’s necessary about the menacing Jaguars’ defense. Two plays after a Jackson sack and Telvin Smith’s 46-yard TD off a fumble return was nullified by a penalty, Ngakoue beat tackle Breno Giacomini to force another Savage fumble, which Dante Fowler picked up and took 53 yards to the house.
“At practice, you see glimpses of it,” Campbell said. “I know when we play our best ball, we’re capable of doing great things. It’s just a start. I want to see if we can keep it going.”
It’s doubtful the Jaguars’ defense can maintain a sack/turnover pace that took them a quarter season or more to establish last year, but it’ll sure be fun to watch them try.
For the first time in forever, the Jaguars have provided some real hope to believe in a better future. They came to Houston and pounded the Texans with the same formula that their AFC South rival had used so often on them.
If nothing else, the Jaguars gave the next division opponent on Sunday, the Tennessee Titans, a reason to fear them. Maybe they’re not the ’85 Bears, but for one day, it was a mighty fine imitation.
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