Jonathan Owens read the eyes of Los Angeles Chargers strong-armed Pro Bowl quarterback Justin Herbert, trusting his instincts that it would guide him on a direct path to the football.
Owens was correct, jumping in front of a deep throw from Herbert that was intended for wide receiver Joshua Palmer to pick him off at the Texans’ 1-yard line in the second quarter for his first NFL interception. Owens also had a fumble recovery. The interception by the former Arizona Cardinals undrafted free agent from Missouri Western led to Davis Mills’ 41-yard touchdown pass during a 41-29 upset victory Sunday at NRG Stadium.
Applying a Cover 2 scheme, Owens capitalized on Herbert’s error.
“I was just kind of following Herbert's eyes and I didn't think he was going to throw it,” Owens said. “When he did it surprised me: undercut it and made the play. I'm glad I could provide that spark for us and we scored a touchdown right after that, right before the half, just playing complementary football.”
Owens’ fumble recovery on Justin Jackson in the fourth quarter off a hit from defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker led to a field goal as he finished with four tackles, one pass defensed and two takeaways in his second NFL start one week after starting against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I was so proud of Jonathan,” Texans coach David Culley said. “He stepped in for us last week. He's been getting a bunch of playing time. He's a guy that's getting better and better the more time he's gotten. I tell you, that was a big interception that he got for us at that time. It was a momentum swing change for us. I'm just so proud of him and all those guys that have stepped in and played for us.”
Signed in 2019 by the Texans to their practice squad after being cut by the Cardinals, Owens was signed to through the 2022 season to the active roster earlier this month.
"It was amazing seeing J.0. come out and play," Texans safety Justin Reid said. "This is the second game in a row that he's played a hell of a game. He's turning out to be a great player. I told him you keep being consistent like this you'll be one of the great safeties in the league. Reminds me of Ryan Clark."
Owens had a breakthrough game while his girlfriend, Olympic gymnast and international celebrity, Simone Biles, and his mother, cheered him on in the stands.
"It was amazing," Owens said. "They probably didn't see, my mom was sitting right there next to her and my mom got to see me in my second start. And that I could get those two turnovers, that was just amazing. My mom, she's been with me every step of the way.
“Just having those two in the stands supporting me, I can't describe the feeling. I never would have thought it would happen like this. But I'm glad it did. I'm glad it sparked our team.”
Owens wasn’t the only Texans defensive back who exploited mistakes by Herbert. Although the Texans had 18 players on the COVID-19 reserve list and were missing safety Eric Murray and cornerback Terrance Mitchell, who was inactive after being activated from the COVID list, they still excelled against Herbert.
They started two players promoted from the practice squad: defensive end Demone Harris and defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour and also played linebacker Connor Strachan on defense for the first time. Tremon Smith started at corner with Mitchell out.
“I think guys came through and played tremendously,” Reid said. “We had a number of guys that we signed this week that came and played on Sunda. I'm still trying to learn everybody's name, but that's just credit to the guys that came in really buying into the system.
“This is one of my favorite wins to be a part of with how many guys stepped up. We had every excuse in the book with COVID, with the holidays, with where the season's going and all that, and still coming and stepping up and making a big-time win like this. It was one of my favorite games.”
Herbert entered Sunday with 4,058 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and a dozen interceptions. He left NRG Stadium with a stinging defeat, one touchdown two interceptions and a 92.1 passer rating. Herbert was playing without versatile running back Austin Ekeler and wide receiver Mike Williams, but the Texans were missing even more key players.
Reid stuffed Jackson on a 2-point conversion run shy of the goal line in the second quarter.
And Thomas picked off Herbert’s sideline throw and returned it 48 yards for his first interception return for a touchdown. Like Owens, Thomas is a former Division II player from Ferris State.
“Amazing, man,” Owens said. “Just me and Tavierre both come from D-II schools, it's something we always talk about. Just small school guys and playing in the big leagues. And it's just crazy, man. We couldn't have written it any better.
“I feel like it's satisfying because we're showing that we have fight. We beat one of the better teams in the AFC, great quarterback. So, it's always a good feeling when you go out there and play that well against a top-caliber quarterback.It’s a great feeling.”
When the Cardinals released him on Sept. 28, 2019, it took a while for Owens to land a spot with the Texans. He’s been with them ever since.
“It's unreal,” he said. “I can't describe it, honestly. Didn't feel real when it happened on the field. Just because I've been cut multiple times. I tore my ACL my first year in the NFL. And you kind of doubt yourself, but you just have to keep working. Keep stacking those days. We want it to happen when we want it. It just takes being patient. And that's all, just stay patient, keep working hard and hard work pays off.
“Just kept faith, man. I knew I could play, even when I was cut, I was cut for three weeks. I kept praying. Just any team that brings me in for a tryout and it just so happened to be the Texans .I've been here ever since just working. My motto is just always like I didn't want to go back to St. Louis and just kind of be back at the crib. You always feel like you're good enough to be out there, you know what I mean?”