Even without J.J. Watt, Texans' defense stays poised and confident

LONDON -- In the Houston Texans’ first game since he tore his pectoral muscle, J.J. Watt couldn’t do anything to help out his teammates. So he tweeted.

While Watt couldn’t help against the Jaguars, his teammates were able to hold the Jaguars to three cups … or points, for the rest of the game. It’s only one game, but the Texans showed signs they might be OK going forward without the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

The Texans’ defensive game plan against the Jaguars on Sunday, safety Justin Reid said, was to take the ball out of Leonard Fournette’s hands. The Jaguars came into the game ranked fifth in rushing, averaging 136.5 rushing yards per game. Houston held Fournette -- who entered the game No. 2 in rushing yards and No. 1 in attempts -- to 40 yards on 11 carries.

“[Fournette] and [Panthers running back] Christian McCaffrey, they get the most touches in the league, so a big part of this game plan was just get them out of their usual system,” Reid said. “Get the balls away from him. Force them in passing situations.”

When the Texans forced quarterback Gardner Minshew into passing situations, the goal was to keep him in the pocket. Houston learned when they played Minshew and the Jaguars in Week 2 that Minshew makes his biggest plays when he can scramble. “We learned how elusive he was from that game, and then the games after,” Reid said.

On Sunday, Minshew ran for 34 yards on four carries, but the defense was able to keep him in check through the air. The quarterback completed 27 of 47 passes for 309 yards, but didn’t throw a touchdown. He threw two interceptions.

The defense was also focused on making sure they didn’t give up any big plays to Minshew.

“We really wanted to make them chip their way down the field and make them play sound and see if they can handle trying to string together a 13-, 14-play drive,” Reid said. “We didn’t just want to give up a two-play, big-play drive. So we just kept everything underneath us, played sound, fundamental technique.”

Jacksonville had only one drive of more than 11 plays, and that resulted in turning the ball over on downs with 10 minutes and 58 seconds left in the game. Houston allowed only four plays of 20-plus yards, and only one play that went 20 or more yards through the air. It's a credit to the Texans' depleted secondary that was without safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Lonnie Johnson. Veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who played through injuries to his neck and shoulder, called the victory over Jacksonville “one of our best games” as a secondary.

When Watt was put on injured reserve, he led the NFL in pressures and quarterback hits. Against the Jaguars, the Texans had four sacks, three of which came in the second half. Minshew was hit five times after halftime as well. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus acknowledged that in the first half, the Texans weren’t getting as much pressure as they wanted, but said Houston was focused on having a “disciplined rush.” According to Mercilus, that paid off in the second half.

All week, Texans players acknowledged that they'd obviously miss Watt but that they couldn’t dwell on it. The NFL cliché “next man up” was said over and over again. After all, Houston has been through this before. This is the third time in the last four seasons that Watt will spend at least half of the season on injured reserve.

In the past, the Texans have had players step up to overcome the absence of Watt. In 2016, when Watt needed back surgery, Mercilus had 7.5 sacks and the defense ranked No. 1 -- and secondary No. 2 -- in the NFL in yards allowed per game. In 2017, when Watt broke his leg, Jadeveon Clowney had a career-high 9.5 sacks.

Who will step up this year? It could be Mercilus, the Texans' only proven pass-rusher after Houston traded Clowney before the start of the season. But head coach Bill O'Brien has said it will be a group of players who will replace Watt. The Texans took a step in the right direction against the Jaguars, which is a welcome sign before the tough three-game stretch Houston has coming up after the bye week: games against division leaders Baltimore, Indianapolis and New England.