Prior to this year, head coach Doug Pederson said he wasn’t sure how the Texans were going to shape up by this time in the season.
Now, with the AFC South title and playoff chances somewhat hanging in the balance, Pederson is well aware of what his team is walking into on Sunday.
“Everybody knows that without speaking it verbally,” Pederson said on Wednesday on the implications of this weekend’s game. “It is a meaningful football game. We are going down to a dome, it is going to be loud, the environment will be great. (The Texans) haven’t had this experience in a few years. This is great to feel that playoff atmosphere.”
The Jags will be at almost full strength this week in practice, as Pederson noted corner Tyson Campbell and defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton are both going to “get some work this week” and continue ramping up into full game shape.
As good as the Jaguars have played defensively this year, it certainly couldn’t hurt to have both of those guys back to stop the Texans’ potent passing offense.
Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud has taken the league by storm, and has already found his favorite target in fellow rookie Tank Dell.
This season, Dell has six touchdown catches and 659 yards receiving.
“Speed, quickness, size. Great route runner,” Pederson said of Dell. “Great hands, can elevate. Everything you want in a receiver. Those two seem to be dialed in right now.”
Much has been made of Stroud’s rise to prominence in his rookie season. Pederson said the former Ohio State gunslinger is playing well above that of a rookie, only encountering a problem or two a game.
“(Stroud has) the occasional forced throw, but everyone gets away with that from time to time,” Pederson said. “This kid is playing extremely well. Very mature individual. He does a nice job. It is very impressive what he is doing. It is obviously no surprise.”
Schematically, Pederson said first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans and the team’s offensive staff, led by first-year offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, have done a lot to put Stroud in the best position.
Even with a largely injured offensive line, the team has kept Stroud upright and healthy. When the Jags first played the Texans, Jacksonville didn’t record a sack.
“They are doing a great job of utilizing (Stroud’s) strengths,” Pederson said. “The offensive line is blocking extremely well. That helps young quarterbacks. They don’t overload him with reads and progressions. They create space in the pocket to allow C.J. to push the ball downfield.”
Teams like the Jags have tried to pressure Stroud given the backups playing along the offensive line, but even then, Stroud has excelled.
He threw two touchdowns against the Jags when the team blitzed him.
C.J. Stroud stood strong against the blitz in Week 3, completing 8 of 11 passes for 130 yards & 2 TD (+9.5 EPA).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 25, 2023
Stroud was pressured on 8 of 11 dropbacks against the blitz (72.7%) despite averaging 2.51 seconds time to throw.#HOUvsJAX | #WeAreTexans pic.twitter.com/qgF7Wx2EZF
“It has to be timely (our) pressures,” Pederson said. “But he has handled it. You can beat the blitz a lot of ways and he has been able to do that. They stay on the field a lot because of that success.”
It might have seemed counterintuitive to pair a rookie quarterback with a defensive minded coach in Ryans, but it has worked thus far. The Jags’ coach equated that coupling of quarterback and coach to his own team.
“It is no surprise. When you get the right leader, you can flip the franchise,” Pederson said. “We were able to do that a little bit last year.”
Defensively, the Texans are also playing considerably well.
The Texans have held teams to below 20 points five times this season, and are led by rookie defensive lineman Will Anderson and third-year defensive lineman Jonathan Greenard.
Anderson has three sacks this season, recording two in his last three games.
“He has really settled into that role,” Pederson said of Anderson. “He is fast. He has good strength, leverage. He is really turning into a really good edge rusher.”
As for Greenard, the former third-round pick has recorded seven sacks. Pederson likened the two to playing together like Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa.
“There are those tandem of guys, and one benefits from the other,” Pederson said. “In tandem, they are playing well. You see what Houston is doing in investing in the defensive line.”
The Jaguars understand that they are now the hunted, instead of the hunter. The Texans are nipping at their tails and have a core of young players to match that of the Jags.
Whereas last season the Jags were transitioning into being the top dog in the division, Pederson said his team has done a good job handling being at the top this year.
“The team has done better this year and has put ourselves in this position,” Pederson said. “But we still haven’t done anything. We have to play like we have everything to prove. You have to match intensity week to week. This team beat us up pretty good in the first matchup. It is going to be a great football game.”
Sunday’s game will be the first road contest for the Jags since their win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Jags are still undefeated on the road this season. Pederson said that success comes from the togetherness of traveling.
In Sunday’s bout, the team will look to keep their undefeated road streak alive and potentially put a lid on the AFC South.
“We are together more on the road,” Pederson said. “It is a great group of guys when they are together. It goes a long way towards the success on any team.”