NFL Preview - Houston (4-4) at Jacksonville (4-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Jacksonville Jaguars have been this year's version of Jekyll and Hyde. In order to detour a bipolar second half of the season, the well-rested team will get back to work Sunday versus the AFC South-rival Houston Texans from EverBank Stadium.
When the Jaguars are on their game this season, opposing teams must beware. But when they're off, bad things begin to arise. They lost back-to-back games by at least 20 points before heading into last week's bye with a 35-17 road rout of the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 31.
Streaky quarterback David Garrard was nearly perfect in Big D, passing for 260 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions for a season-best rating of 157.8. Garrard also ran for a score and lifted Jacksonville to a 4-4 record, good enough for third place in the AFC South. Houston is also 4-4 on the season, while Tennessee and Indianapolis are tied for the division lead with identical 5-3 records.
But it was not just Garrard who led the Jaguars to victory. The defense had something to say in the Lone Star State by coming up a franchise-record four interceptions, two of which were by cornerback Derek Cox. The second-year pro out of William & Mary leads the team in that department and cast a bright spot over what's been a rather decrepit Jacksonville defense.
Either way, Cox's performance helped liven the optimism of head coach Jack Del Rio.
"It was a win we had to have and we got it," Del Rio said. "You'd like to remain alive and have some hope. We at least stayed afloat. We play everyone in our division again and Houston twice. We'll get our opportunities."
If Maurice Jones-Drew's performance against the Cowboys means anything, then the Jaguars will be a force to be reckoned with over the next eight games of the regular season. The running back had just one 100-yard effort on the year before rushing for a season-best 135 yards on a season-high 27 carries against the Cowboys. However, he hasn't reached the end zone in four straight weeks and owns only one rushing touchdown on the year, though the UCLA product has two receiving scores.
The Texans know a little something about running the football, since Arian Foster leads the NFL with 864 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. A former undrafted free agent, he is trying to become the first running back since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2007 to lead the league in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in a single season, though he'll have competition for that honor from Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Tennessee's Chris Johnson.
Foster has recorded back-to-back 100-yard efforts and posted 127 yards and two scores on 27 carries in Houston's 29-23 loss to San Diego last Sunday. It was the second straight defeat for the Texans, who gained 391 yards on offense -- the most allowed by the Chargers this season. San Diego entered the game ranked first in the league in total defense, giving up an average of 260.0 yards per game, and still managed to find a way to win.
Houston rookie cornerback Kareem Jackson shouldered some of the blame for the loss after giving up two long touchdowns of 55 and 28 yards to Chargers rookie wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu. Jackson also recorded his second interception of the season, however, and garnered the support of head coach Gary Kubiak.
"We've got a lot of confidence in him," Kubiak quipped. "He just needs to keep working. I have no doubt in my mind that he's going to be one heck of a football player. Now at the same time, he's got to start making those plays. We expect him to do that. His teammates expect him to do that. What he's telling you is that he expects to do that."
It's going to take a collective effort to get Houston's defense up to par, since it's last in the NFL in both pass defense (298.2 ypg) and total yards allowed (399.5 ypg). Getting to the quarterback more often would be a good start, as defensive end Mario Williams had the lone sack on Philip Rivers last week.
The all-time series between the Jaguars and Texans is tied, 8-8, with Jacksonville knotting the series by virtue of a home-and-home sweep last season. The Jags were 31-24 road winners when the teams met in Week 3, and completed the sweep with a 23-18 victory at EverBank Field in Week 13. Houston last defeated Jacksonville in 2008, at Reliant Stadium. The Jaguars are 3-0 in home-and-home games against the Texans since last falling to the team within friendly confines in 2006.
Del Rio is 7-7 versus the Texans all-time, including 5-2 in Jacksonville. Kubiak is 4-4 against both Del Rio and the Jaguars as a head coach.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (2,005 passing yards, 10 TD, 7 INT) went to the locker room during the fourth quarter of the San Diego game with an apparent rib injury, but Kubiak cleared the air by saying he was just hit in the gut. Schaub has thrown for 300 yards just once in his last six games for a Texans pass offense rated 11th in the league, averaging 233.6 yards per game. He was sacked twice on Sunday and has been taken down 10 times in the past four games. Foster (864 rushing yards, 9 TD) has taken some of the pressure off of Schaub and has scored multiple touchdowns four times this season. He was open when talking of the running game after losing to the Chargers, implying that the ground attack must be in full gear for four quarters. Foster, who had 231 yards on 33 carries and three touchdowns in a season-opening win over Indianapolis, was the team's leading receiver as well this past Sunday with 70 yards on four catches, and tops the NFL with an average of 147.4 scrimmage yards per game. All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson (43 receptions, 635 yards, 3 TD) saw a Schaub pass go through his hands and into the open arms of a defender late in last week's game, sealing the win for San Diego. Johnson was coming off consecutive 100-yard receiving games and owns 76 career receptions in his career against Jacksonville, the most versus any opponent.
There's no secret the Jaguars have one of the worst defenses in the league, and that could cost them on Sunday. On a more positive note, they were able to shut down the Cowboys with ease and are coming off a nice rest from the bye. The defense had a team-record four interceptions, with Cox coming away with two, cornerback Rashean Mathis (32 tackles, 1 INT) ending with one and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (17 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) getting the other pick. Mathis is shooting for his third consecutive game with an interception against the Texans and owns a franchise-best 29 career picks. He also garners the responsibility of shutting down Andre Johnson in the Houston pass attack. The Jaguars did a great job of stopping the rush against the Cowboys but are just 22nd in run defense, allowing 119.1 yards per game. Foster could get that in one half and must be the central focus of Del Rio's game plan. Linebackers Daryl Smith (47 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), Kirk Morrison (44 tackles) and Justin Durant (31 tackles) will be busy this weekend. Morrison noted this week that he's never had a second-half run before. Having played for the Oakland Raiders prior to this season, he didn't have many opportunities to compete for a playoff spot.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Garrard (1,098 passing yards, 13 TD, 7 INT) is coming off a dynamic performance against Dallas and will try to duplicate his success this Sunday in a crucial division showdown. Another win will keep Jacksonville's playoff chances alive, but a loss would more than likely make it very difficult for a postseason appearance. Garrard, who earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his effort versus the Cowboys, is on pace to break Mark Brunell's single-season touchdown record of 20 set in both 1998 and 2000. The Jaguars have a favorable matchup against Houston's awful defensive backfield and will try to get their top three pass-catchers involved immediately. Mike Thomas leads the team with 33 catches, while tight end Marcedes Lewis (25 receptions) is tops with seven touchdown catches -- the most by a tight end in a season in franchise history. Lewis came down with two scoring grabs against Dallas, with Mike Sims-Walker (29 receptions, 4 TD) and Thomas having the other receiving scores. Sims-Walker had a career-high 153 receiving yards in Dallas as well. Jones-Drew (645 rushing yards, 1 TD) is aiming for 1,200 yards rushing for a second straight season.
The Texans have been defending the rush fairly well this season and are 11th against opposing ground attack's, allowing 101.2 yards per game. They held the Chargers to 77 rushing yards and figure Jacksonville will be dropping a healthy dose of Jones-Drew this Sunday. Williams (19 tackles, 6 sacks) recorded his team-leading sixth sack of the season last Sunday and has five in seven career games against the Jags. Rookie cornerback Jackson (44 tackles, 2 INT) is fourth on the team in tackles and hopes to put a rough recent showing behind him this week. He shouldn't have to worry too much, because the Jags' pass attack isn't nearly as effective as San Diego's, but he and his teammates still have a lot of work to. Leading tackler and safety Bernard Pollard (74 tackles) had a game-high nine stops and a forced fumble in last week's close loss. Linebackers Zac Diles (63 tackles) and Brian Cushing (27 tackles) are counting on defensive tackles Amobi Okoye (25 tackles, 1 sack) and Shaun Cody 23 tackles) to plug the lanes for Jones-Drew and allow them to roam free behind the front line. The Texans have forced just eight turnovers, tied for second-fewest in the league, and recorded only 12 sacks, tied for fourth- fewest in the NFL.
Fantasy players have been upset with Jones-Drew and his one rushing touchdown this season. Thankfully, he can multi-task and catch passes out of the backfield, too. Garrard will be throwing those passes to him and could be a worthwhile play this week, along with Lewis, Sims-Walker and Thomas. It's tough to decide which receiver is best, but all three are likely targets in the red zone.
Foster has been a great addition to the fantasy world ever since the end of last season. There's no reason why he'll stop now with an important division showdown looming this weekend. Schaub and Andre Johnson are the other two Texans worthy of starting nods.
The Jaguars are aiming for their fourth straight win at home against the Texans, but unfortunately that won't happen because Foster will be spearheading a Texans offense averaging 370 yards per game. Even though it's a must-win state of affairs for both clubs, Houston needs it more since it's 0-2 since its bye week. Also, look for Andre Johnson to get back on track after literally letting a potential win slip through his hands a week before.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 23, Jaguars 17
11/11 12:37:57 ET