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WEEK 9 PREVIEW

London’s Calling – the Texans make the inaugural trip as a franchise to take on the well travelled Jacksonville Jaguars in a pivotal AFC South Clash.

The Houston Texans will travel to London this week to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars, in the Texans first game in London and their second international game as a franchise. The Jaguars will have the obvious advantage due to their experience of playing games in London and more so in Wembley stadium since 2013, holding a 3-3 record. The Texans only previous experience of international games was an ill-fated trip to Mexico City where the Texans left with 27-20 defeat at the hand of the Raiders. But greater factors than game plan execution were at play that night.

The injury laden 5-3 Texans, who are coming off a late come-back win against Oakland, will need to dig deep to best a well trodden divisional foe on a transatlantic business trip prior to the bye week. Injury to star defensive end JJ Watt – the three times defensive MVP – only adds to the already depleted secondary group who will face rookie revelation, quarterback Gardner Minshew who’s lead the team back to a 4-4 record, in the early kick off this Sunday.

This seasons previous encounter saw the Texans narrow 13-12 victors. Aided by a perplexing decision by Jags Head Coach Doug Marrone’s failed two point conversion rather than tie the game by kicking the PAT. That game was also Minshew’s first start for the Jag’s after high price free agent and former Super Bowl MVP, Nick Foles, suffered a broken clavicle sustained in week 1, after only eleven plays.

Jacksonville, are in the midst of a two-game winning streak courtesy of a 27-17 and 29-15 victory over Cincinnati & the Jets, respectively. That span has seen the former Washington State prospect complete 67.2% of his passes, contributing 610 yards of total offence, 4 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Minshew-Mania has ebbed and flowed since replacing the injured Foles. But what is clear, jorts, moustache and headband aside, is that he carries poise and a football IQ well beyond his tender years. A 13:2 touchdowns to interception ratio should not be taken lightly for a first year player in only 7 starts. Containing the Jags running back will be a key to the game from the Texans sidelines. The Texans defensive front will be in for a physical battle against former 4th overall pick in 2017, Leonard Fournette. The LSU product looks to be returning to form after a year two slump and injuries slowed his progress. Albeit against a struggling Jets defensive unit Fournette put up 136 years combine through the air and ground attack, in week 8. A concern for the secondary will be the need to game plan for the productive wide receiver-duo: Chris Conley who has put up over 180 yards in only 7 receptions across the Jags two victories coming into Sunday’s game; Fournette’s alma mater, DJ Chark has contributed 8TD’s and 834 yard through the air. The Jags will likely look lean on the pair to spark the passing game due to the loss of Marquise Lee, who was placed on the IR this week.

Health is perhaps the biggest leveller in the NFL and it’s exemplified no more than by the Texans injury report this week, listing no less than 18 players. The Texans deep threat, but often injured wide receiver Will Fuller will miss the clash. As likely will rookie corner Lonnie Johnson Jr. who is dealing with a concussion and is in the protocol. The former Jag, Teshaun Gipson will likely also further deplete the secondary with back and wrist complaints. A much needed return to this team would be in both Bradley Roby at corner, the free agent from the Bronco’s has proven as astute addition to this team, just as 1st right tackle Tytus Howard’s return would be, who has proven the doubters wrong with some sterling performances this season. Less the loss of Foles, Jacksonville appear the far healthier team going into the second match-up of the season between the two clubs as they both enter the back half of their schedules.

The longer term decision facing the Jags will be the Minshew-Foles decision, what will come of that will remain to be seen. However, Jacksonville have limited cap space as they were unable to extend edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue’s contract which lead to a pre-season hold out. Thought this may not hurt the team as once thought due to the emergence of the former Kentucky Wildcats edge-wrecker, Josh Allen. The 7th overall pick in this years draft has returned through 8 weeks: 23 tackles, 7 sacks and two forced fumbles. Combined with the ever-present Calais Campbell & former UCLA Bruin Myles Jack at linebacker provides a stout unit which has lead Watson to sub 60% clips on multiple occasions. This Jags defence is hard to move the ball against and is the strength of their team that provides a challenge through the air or on the ground attack for every offence they face.

The Texans offensive line lead by Laremy Tunsil at left tackle will be hoping they can return to relative health and form if they are to quell a ferocious pass rush and allow Watson time to find his wealth of receiving options. This will provide a central theme that decides Sunday’s tie, pitting the Jags against Houston star quarterback. When rolling, this Texans offence can be explosive, lead by wide receiver Deandre Hopkins who will like their chances against as Jag’s defensive unit which lost its star Jalen Ramsey to a blockbuster trade earlier in the season. Hopkins became the third quickest players to reach 8,000 receiving yards, only behind hall of famers Jerry Rice and Larry Fitzgerald, last week agains the Raiders and continues to enter the conversation as the best wide receiver in the league. The prospect of watching D-Hop work should be enough for any neutral to part with the admission price. His numbers continue to soar as he is Watson’s go-to-guy, the pair of Celm(p)son products have a unique chemistry that means defences have to account for him on every play.

HOUSTON, TX – DECEMBER 30: Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) relaxes during a timeout in the football game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans on December 30, 2018 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Ramsey & Hopkins bi-annual battle not being on the field will be a loss to the neutral. But the flexibility which Jalen allowed his team mates to play with has been a substantial contributing factor in previous clashes. No longer having the services of a rare player type at that position, who can shut-down opposing receivers will be huge plus for the Texans game plan. The coverage versatility will be lessened as the remainder of the DB unit won’t enjoy the same level of freedom to take risks attacking the ball, that they could when they counted Ramsey as a teammate. This now leaves former Texan AJ Bouye as the Jags main cover corner, one of the best number 2 corners in the league but not able to provide what Ramsey once gave DC Todd Walsh and this defensive unit.

The NFL international series games bring a whirlwind of fanfare for sport fans to see a great sport live. These games are great for the league, its brand, enagement and resulting merchandise sales. It provides extension of a sport when improving the accessibility to its core product – the live games themselves. And despite how much players privately will not be thrilled with the travel, the growth in revenues ultimately finds a way back into the players pockets via the extension of the salary cap which continues to grow exponentially each season. However, the impact on players bodies in a NFL season is a war of attrition and the healthier Jacksonville side with experience of the strains travelling have the edge going into the game, at their home, away from home. Although in essence, this is a road game for both teams and it would appear the Jags willingly give up any home field advantage they would have otherwise had, even if the tarps are on the top tier of TIAA Bank Field.

What must be considered beyond the travel and time zone acclimation is the potential weather and that grass field which certainly hasn’t been in optimal football condition in previous NFL games held at Wembley. It appeared the approach was to just grow the grass longer from its complexion on last weeks broadcast. Whatever, the state of the turf or the weather, it will provide a stark contrast to the conditions accustomed by both teams. If the colder winter rain comes down on a grey London day, this game could well turn into man-ball where games decided on the ground and both respective lines will go at it for sixty minutes, in the trenches. That would also side with Jags as their biggest offensive weapon is at running back. Ball security will be paramount and can shift momentum in a hurry, Carlos Hyde, despite contributing 544 yards on the ground and 3TD’s has coughed the ball up on three occasion, so something to monitor this Sunday as the Great British winter sets in.

All things being equal, if Deshaun and the offence can find a way to get out in front and force Minshew and the Jags to be aggressive with the ball then therein lies the potential of the rookie passer to turn the ball over. The Texans had prior to last week, the longest active streak of turnovers in the NFL and regardless of personnel available will be looking to get a new streak in motion. Offence versus offence alone, the advantage sits with the Texans and the wizardry that Waston, Hopkins, Fells et.al have shown over the first half of the season. Particularly the Jags susceptibility against TE’s and crossing routes over the middle versus their coverage concepts commonly deployed in their game plan. Advantage Texans on that front.

The biggest question looming, that no one bar the Texans coaching staff can really answer, is what personnel will the Texans trot out in both the front and back end of their defence? That remains a big unknown for this defence how they will manufacture pressures on the opposing quarterback in an era where the front seven will not contain JJ Watt or Jadeveon Clowney. With the only discernible NFL-level proven edge rusher left on the roster in Whitney Mercilius. He will have significant pressure on his broad shoulders to find a way to penetrate the backfield if the Texans want to get Minshew and the Jags behind the chains. Minshew, just as Carr & Brissett have in previous weeks, should enjoy his fair share of plays against the Texans secondary, regardless of who’s out there. The team that plays the most fundamentally sound game plan, Jags O versus Texans D, will be a major reason for the way this game transpires. But at this stage the battle lines are yet to be drawn and hopefully Romeo Crennel has been putting his forty plus years of NFL coaching experience to good use this week.

Every NFL game is swung on the basis of 4 to 5 plays, as second to health, momentum is such a vital factor for every team. Many division match-up’s are stifled by the level the familiarly between two team which has a tendency to cancel out the others strengths. Much of Sunday’s tie will centre around Jags pass rush influence, coupled with the Texans front 7 will be largely unknown which either unit could shift this games direction quickly. The newly found freedom of a Jalen-less defence could prove for Hopkins & Kenny Stills to have a strong outing. A tight game at hand, but points to be had where neither side can ill afford to lose. But if the ball is in the hands of the Texans number 4, on the final drive, with the game on the line, who’s to bet against him?

TEXANS @ JAGS, Wembley Stadium, London, KO: 2:30 BST//8:30 CT, NFL Network, Fox26 Houston.

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