When veteran safety and team captain Jimmie Ward rejoins his teammates on the field Sunday, the timing is ideal for the Texans as they square off with Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson.
His healthy return from a strained hamstring that has kept him out of the past three games gives the Texans’ secondary their first lineup with every starter this season.
As the Texans battle the resurgent Broncos, this marks a pivotal game for both teams. The Texans’ three-game winning streak and chance to assume first place in the AFC South division were halted last Sunday by the Jacksonville Jaguars. And the Broncos, primarily behind an aggressive defense and a sound offense built around the running game and a controlled passing attack, are riding a five-game winning streak
“It’s not the Catalina Wine Mixer,” Ward said in a classic Stepbrothers movie reference. “It’s still football at the end of the day. It’s an important game, but you don’t need to make nothing up.
“You don’t gotta do nothing different, just play the same game you’ve been playing since you were nine. Obviously, you’re getting paid a little more money and there’s a lot more fans in the stands, but, at the same time, it’s still football.”
Three weeks after getting cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. back from a hamstring injury, now Ward is back to boost a defense that allowed a lot of explosive plays against the Jaguars as quarterback Trevor Lawrence passed for a season-high 364 yards.
Operating primarily in man coverage, never sacking Lawrence and only hitting him twice with a lot of four-man pressure packages, the Texans allowed long completions of 57, 42, 42 and 21 yards in the defeat. Lawrence averaged 9.6 yards per attempt, and 13 of the Jaguars’ 22 first downs were on passes.
“For us, I hope we don’t have that many explosives,” Texans coach and defensive playcaller DeMeco Ryans said. “We’d better do a much better job of being where we are supposed to be. The focus for our guys defensively is just be where you are supposed to be. That’s how you eliminate the explosives. Make sure we’re tight with our communication, everybody is on the same page, everybody is accounted for, then we’ll just have a really good battle where we have to make them earn every yard that they get.”
Wilson, labeled the worst trade in NFL history a year ago as he struggled mightily, has turned things around under new coach Sean Payton. He has stayed within himself and limited mistakes. Wilson has the top touchdown-to-interception ratio in the NFL with 20 touchdowns and four interceptions, a percentage that tops Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (26 touchdowns, six interceptions), Texans rookie C.J. Stroud (19 touchdown passes and five interceptions), Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (18 touchdowns and five interceptions) and Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (20 touchdowns and six interceptions).
A year ago, Wilson finished with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He hasn’t thrown an interception during the Broncos’ five-game winning streak. He has completed 68.3 percent of his throws for 2,199 yards.
“Dynamic player, a guy who can beat you with his legs,” Texans nickel Desmond King said. “That’s something we’ve got to keep an eye on to keep him in the pocket, not let him get outside of the pocket. That’s definitely helped him in his career. Our goal is to keep him in the pocket and limit the explosive plays. They’re coming into NRG. We need to send them home with some bad news.”
Everything has changed for the Broncos since a rough 1-5 start under Payton. The Broncos are sticking with what works. Simple is smart.
“I think they’ve done a good job of merging their identities a lot that Sean does really married up with what Russell does well, and I think it’s been a pretty good union to be honest with you,” Ryans said. “Obviously lately, a little uptick in some of the run game stuff, the designed runs, the scramble and off-schedule plays have always been there for Russell. But designing some of those things and the shots down the field, which he’s always been good at, I think it’s a pretty good marriage for that team.”
A victory Sunday boosts the Texans’ playoff probability to 40 percent. And a defeat could drop their chances to a 25.3 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason.
It’s undoubtedly a big football game. And the Texans’ secondary has its work cut out for them against Wilson and wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy.
“It’s December football,” Texans cornerback Steven Nelson said. “It’s like a playoff game once you hit December. The intensity goes up.”
Having Ward back and his hard-hitting style with 35 tackles and a forced fumble in six games is a plus.
Signed to a two-year, $14.5 million contract, Ward was acquired for games like this one.
“It feels great, I can’t wait to get to it,” Ward said. “I feel like it’s going to be pretty cool. The best I can do for my team is to help coach, give them tips, give them advice. At the same time time, you just gotta go out there and let the guys play. Sometimes, you gotta go through it and that’s a great learning experience.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.