HEAD COACH BILL O’BRIEN
“Before we get started, I wanted to take a minute to talk about some of the things the guys are doing in the community. I think it’s really important. D.J. Reader gave away 150 turkeys in the Third Ward. Whitney Mercilus – this is during Thanksgiving, obviously – catered a Thanksgiving meal to Texas Children’s, which was very cool. Tyrann Mathieu passed out 320 meals to families at an elementary school in Humble. Shareece Wright provided Thanksgiving dinner to families in the Colton Project in California where he’s from for his seventh-annual turkey drive. Demaryius Thomas, Kendall Lamm, Greg Mancz, Brian Peters and Jon Weeks served Thanksgiving lunch and spent time with military veterans at the VA hospital. I think this is just great stuff. Andre Hal, as part of Giving Tuesday, he hosted his fourth-annual single mother-son shopping spree. Eleven boys from a local Charter school – Pro Vision, which is an unbelievable school – and their moms were treated to $350 gift cards to shop, provided a catered dinner and Andre sent them all home with $200 HEB gift cards. That’s incredible. Kareem Jackson invited children from Candlelighters to participate in his ‘Shop with a Jock’ event. Seven teammates supported Kareem at that event. JD (Jadeveon) Clowney held his holiday event. 30 children from Big Brothers Big Sisters, all of the kids have a parent who is incarcerated. Each child was partnered with one of Clowney’s teammates to shop around for holiday gifts. Clowney also hosted a shopping spree for 100 kids in his hometown of Rock Hill, South Carolina. Tyrann Mathieu hosted 10 families from the FORGE for Families nonprofit for gifts and dinner. D’Onta Foreman hosted a toy drive and Christmas party for kids from the Bridge Over Troubled Waters. I can go on and on. Johnson Bademosi visited Texas Children’s Hospital patients in their rooms and delivered toys. Joel Heath collaborated with Star of Hope Homeless Shelter to pass out gifts and meals to 300 homeless Houstonians. DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson helped make Christmas possible for 16 families at Madge Bush Transitional Living Center who have experience homelessness or domestic violence. I just think it’s important to note what all of these guys – and I didn’t even mention J.J. Watt with all of the things that he’s done – but, I think it’s important at this time of the year to recognize those guys. I appreciate their community efforts.”
When you approached QB Deshaun Watson about taking a bus to Jacksonville, did you have any doubt that he would agree to it?
“I knew he was going to go. No doubt.”
How did you have to change your pregame with QB Deshaun Watson when he traveled via bus to Jacksonville?
“That was such a long time ago. Really that was a long time ago. That was a different set of circumstances. This game, really, is about Sunday. Both teams are a lot different than they were back then. Just very, very different game. It’s more important to really just focus on what’s going on on Sunday.”
Can you talk about having the opportunity to clinch the AFC South at home after starting the season 0-3?
“It’s great. We have a great opportunity. Our fans are going to be fantastic on Sunday. We’ve got to go do it. Like always, you’re going to write whatever you’re going to write and I know that you’re going to write that they’re a 5-10 team and all of that, but throw the film on. Let’s start on defense. Calais Campbell, (Yannick) Ngakoue, Myles Jack, Telvin Smith, Marcell Dareus, Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, (Tashaun) Gipson at safety, D.J. Hayden, the Star, has been playing really well. Offensively, you look at some of the things they’re doing with Leonard Fournette. You look at the punt return with Dede Westbrook. I mean, this is a very good football team. It’s going to be a battle. This is going to be a very hard game. We’re going to need all of our fans. We’re going to need our players and our coaches to have an excellent day on Sunday.”
How did you find WR Vyncint Smith as a college free agent?
“All of the credit on that really goes to Brian Gaine and his staff of scouts and then our assistant coaches who help out with that once the season ends. I think that the draft is the draft. Let’s say you have seven draft picks, maybe you have five, maybe you have eight, maybe you have more than that. That’s a good number of players, and you want to be right on those players, obviously, but that undrafted part of the draft after the draft, that post-draft process, really when it comes to roster-building is one of the most important parts of the process. Vyncint, Dylan Cole, Kendall Lamm, we have a bunch of guys on our roster that were a part of that process. That’s really an important part of the whole deal.”
Can you talk about how different the Jaguars and Texans are now from when they matched up in Week 7?
“We’re both a lot different. I think teams evolve over the year. They have a different offensive coordinator. They’re doing some things offensively that are a little bit different. Personnel-wise, Barry Church doesn’t play for them anymore. They’re just doing some different things. For us, I think everybody evolves. We’re a little bit different. I think we’re more identified as to what we are, and we have to get back to that. We have to do a better job of running the football and we’ve got to do a better job of stopping the run – obviously, I think we do a pretty good job of that – but, pressuring the quarterback, playing coverage and playing complementary football. I think our special teams has been much improved than it was the previous years. That has to continue, but I think we’re both very different teams than we were back then.”
How much has QB Deshaun Watson evolved since the first Jacksonville game?
“A lot. I was just thinking about that. He was playing well at the beginning of the season, no doubt about it, but he’s really playing at a high level now. He’s got a real understanding of what’s happening defensively, what our offensive game plan is, what our team game plan is. I think he has a really good idea of how we want to try to play the game, and I think over time every young player, especially at that position, the more reps they get, as hard as he works – I mean, he was in here yesterday. He was here yesterday and so were other guys. If you work that hard and you get all of those reps, you’re going to improve.”
Do you think teams have been playing different against the run against you the past few weeks or do you think the dip in production has to do with the way the offensive scheme is being blocked?
“I think it’s a little bit of both. Obviously, the schemes have been good at times. Give those coaches credit of those teams. Then, it’s everything. Maybe design a little bit better play, execute better. Everybody’s involved, but I would say it’s a little bit of everything.”
Is the growth curve for a player greater when going from Division II to the NFL like WR Vyncint Smith coming from Limestone College?
“Oh yeah. In my opinion, level of competition is part of the evaluation. So, a guy that’s played in the SEC for three or four years, relative to a guy who – with all due respect, and I love Limestone – but a guy that played at Limestone, it’s just different. It’s going to be a different level of competition relative to getting ready to play professional football. Since the day Vyncint walked in here, he’s a very hardworking guy. I don’t think – knock on wood – he’s ever missed a practice, takes notes in the meetings, pays attention, great guy. Really a focused individual, and he’s improved because of that. But, that’s part of the evaluation process is who they’re playing against.”
What does it say about QB Deshaun Watson that he was in the building working on Christmas?
“I think these guys – I mean, we all love Christmas. No doubt about it. Go Christmas, but it’s game week. How long does it necessarily take you to open up a present? You know what I mean? You open up a present, there’s the present, love it. Got to get back to work. That’s kind of how we look at it. I’m kidding. I never answer this question correctly, but I’m more of a Thanksgiving guy. You guys know that. I like the food.”
How impressive is it that the players were willing to work on Christmas?
“Yeah, guys came in, worked, got a workout in, watched some tape. So, it was good.”
How important is the trust between a playcaller and quarterback?
“That’s big. We spend a lot of time together during the week trying to make sure that we’re on the same page with how we want to start the game, how we want to play the game and then how we may have to adjust during the game, which is really what happened last week. We had to adjust during the game. There has to be trust between the playcaller and the quarterback. If there isn’t trust, then you’ve got a major problem.”
Do you feel like you have enough healthy cornerbacks this week or do you think you have to play some safeties at cornerback?
“I think we’re trending in the right direction with our secondary relative to overall health at this time of the year. Yeah, I think it’s headed in the right direction. We may still move guys around based on who we’re playing, but not necessarily because of health, if that makes sense.”
How much freedom does QB Deshaun Watson have in terms of running the offense?
“He has a lot of freedom. No quarterback has the playbook at his disposal – 50 plays for one play-call – that’s not what I mean, but he has the ability to – because of how hard he works and how much time we all spend together, we’re all trying to see it through the same set of eyes. But, when you’re out on the field, sometimes the quarterback can see it better than we on the sideline. So, it’s important for him to have the ability to make this adjustment, change this, do this, do that. That’s part of the trust. When you’re talking during the week, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ ‘Yeah, this is what I’d do if they do this.’ OK, there’s a trusting answer. Like, I trust that answer. That’s what it’s all about. He’s a very bright guy. Like I said after the game on Sunday, he loves the football field and he sees things very well, so we give him the ability to change things, no doubt about it.”
OLB WHITNEY MERCILUS
What’s the mindset of the team heading into Sunday’s game?
“We understand this is a very important game – not that any other game was not important – but we’ve got a lot to lock up here as far as the AFC South and all of that. Especially with Jacksonville coming in here, home game as well, in front of the fans for the last time as far as the regular season goes, it’s going to be high energy. We understand the Jags are going to be coming in here trying to get a W, guys who are playing for their jobs, stuff like that, so we understand that.”
Head Coach Bill O’Brien said forget about Jacksonville’s record because they are loaded with talent.
“Yeah, definitely. Despite what their record is, what they had going on this season, they’ve got a ton of guys who can make plays all over the field – offense, defense, and also special teams. So, they’re going to come in here ready to go and it’s going to be a physical game.”
What can you tell us about this very small margin between winning these close games and losing these close games?
“Yeah, it’s just a few plays out of the entire game. So, when we went back to look at film and things like that, we just shot ourselves in the foot. Critical mistakes, communication, tackling, stuff like that that we did ourselves and gave up a few plays and gave those things away throughout the season. We’ve got to correct that going into this week and also the postseason.”
How cool would it be to clinch in front of the home fans and have the fans be able to celebrate with you guys clinching the division title?
“Yeah, definitely. It’s something that we look forward to each year. We’ve done it before and doing it in front of the home crowd would be great, awesome. I know everybody would be excited, especially when we’re heading into the postseason.”
WR VYNCINT SMITH
QB Deshaun Watson talked about the trust he has in you. Is that a product of the work you’ve put in in practice?
“I’d like to think so. I take practice seriously. I like to practice how I play, so things sort of happen that that helps.”
What’s it like to be the only player in the NFL from Limestone College?
“It’s really cool. All my teammates I had from there, they look up to me in some way, somehow and say I’m doing something that was hard to imagine. It’s really cool.”
What’s the learning curve been like coming from Division II to the NFL?
“Coming from a DII school, there are things that you don’t see on that level or don’t learn on that level that takes a lot of attention on this level to have to pay attention and go do it over and over. That’s what helps me – repetition.”
Are there any receivers that you’ve grown up watching that you tried to emulate?
“Oh yeah, guys like DeAndre (Hopkins) and Demaryius (Thomas). I told Demaryius I had him as my background back in 2015. So, that was pretty cool.”
What did WR Demaryius Thomas say when you told him he used to be your background?
“We were just laughing about it. He always jokes that he’s an old guy, but it’s great for me to come in and play with guys that I had as my background.”
QB DESHAUN WATSON
What does it say about you and some of your teammates that you came in to work on Christmas?
“Everyone, just the dedication, the will to try to find a way to get better, recover the body, get a workout in, watch some extra film, get on the page. But, everyone got to enjoy some time with their family and loved ones and be able to enjoy Christmas, too.”
How cool is it to see your teammates have that dedication, too?
“It’s always good, but it doesn’t surprise me because I know our locker room. I know how each and every week we try to find each one of those guys in that locker room, regardless of if you’re on the 53 or not or on the practice squad, you always try to find a way to get better. That’s the attitude and the work we’ve been putting in all year.”
What does it mean to clinch a playoff berth after starting 0-3?
“It’s good. It’s one of the goals that every team in the National Football League want to do is have an opportunity for the big goal. We have that opportunity. We have to focus on this week, and then we have a chance to be able to do what we really want to do.”
How excited are you to be in the playoffs for the first time?
“Right now, that’s not my main focus. My main focus is Jacksonville. Whenever that time comes, it’s going to be a fun time. That’s what you play ball for, but right now it’s just focusing on Jacksonville.”
How much better do you feel physically now than before the first Jacksonville game?
“I don’t have a collapsed lung or a broken rib, so I guess pretty darn well. I feel good, feel solid, able to do everything I want to do and participate, wake up every morning healthy and in good spirits.”
Do you ever look back at the experience of taking a bus to Jacksonville?
“All the time. That’s a story that I’ll never forget and be able to tell people the things that I had to go through to kind of be able to be on the field with the team and be able to perform and try to get a win, but we talk about it in the quarterback room, in the locker room, whenever situations come up. At the end of the day, it was cool being able to find a way to get down there and help the team win.”
What have you thought of WR Vyncint Smith’s development this season?
“Vyncint is a guy that’s been quiet. A rookie that has learned so much from the guys that’s been in that locker room, that have played a lot of ball – (DeAndre) Hop(kins), Will (Fuller V), DT (Demaryius Thomas), even when Bruce (Ellington) was here and guys like that. Vyncint has been watching and improving each and every week. Hasn’t said a word, hasn’t had one complaint. Just kind of been working and has been patient. Whenever his opportunity came on Sunday, he took advantage of it and he made a big play for us. He’s a guy that we’ve all been watching and knew that whenever his opportunity came that we could trust in him and he knew what to do.”
How much confidence did WR Vyncint Smith’s touchdown give him and you?
“For me, my confidence, if you’re out there on the field with me, I have all the confidence in the world. It’s not one guy in that locker room that’s on the field with me that shouldn’t think or lack any confidence that the ball is not going to go to him. For me, I’m going to find the open guy. For him, being able to step up in that moment, I think it gives him a lot of confidence to be able to know that he can come in and perform at this level. This is what he’s been working for for his whole life. All the time and hard work he’s been putting in since training camp, throughout the season, is finally getting to show and his opportunity’s going to come.”
Does it take a while to feel like yourself again after recovering from an ACL injury?
“For sure. You can put in the work and go through motions, but all of the work and the training that you do before you get on the field is kind of different. Practice is full speed, but you don’t get too much live action. A lot of guys, especially at my position, aren’t tackling you or coming around you, but once you step on the field in live action and things are a little bit faster and guys are really coming at you, it’s a little different. But, it takes time to get back in the groove and get the knee back working like you want to and trust in it. But, it just takes time and reps.”
Have you been feeling more like yourself over the last few weeks?
“I’ve been feeling like myself for a while. Just being able to make plays and get out of situations when I can and try to move around. I never had any complaints or any problems with my knee. That’s just kind of how the season flowed out.”
How much do you enjoy the pressure of a must-win game?
“There’s not really pressure for me or anything because every game is a must-win. Every game I want to win. So, for me, I’m not used to losing, like I said before, and every game, I put that mindset in my head that we must go in and win. We understand the stakes of this game is the opportunity to clinch, but at the end of the day, you can’t focus on that. You just have to focus on your job and going out there and performing and let the game come to you. You can’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself.”
You seem to thrive in big games.
“I guess so. I just go out there and play ball and just let the game come to me.”
How much will the big games you’ve played in in the past help you prepare for games like Sunday?
“I guess situations throughout the game. It’s all normal to me. It’s all the same to me. I guess the biggest thing is the media, press and outside stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s still football regardless of you’re playing against somebody that isn’t going to the playoffs and somebody that is. It’s still football. You’ve still got to go out there and do the same thing regardless of what’s on the mind or not.”
Have you ever lost a game by more than one score?
“High school, I think the last one that I lost by more than one score was probably my sophomore year. My junior year, we lost three and they were all under five points. Senior year, we lost two under five points. Then, college, of course, none. None in the NFL.”
Are you excited to watch Clemson on Saturday?
“Oh, for sure. Get that dub. Go on to the Natty. Yeah, we’re going to handle business for sure.”
How would you rate your improvement this season to this point?
“I’ve gotten a lot better, just the situation of the game. If you cut the season in half, from the first half of the season to the second half of the season after the bye week, my completion percentage is higher, my turnovers are lower. It puts the team and this offense in a better situation to win games, especially toward the end, and being able to manage those games and situations and taking what the defense is giving me. In the big scheme of things, it puts the defense in a lot of stress because we’re not forcing anything. We kind of keep the chains moving. When I take the checkdown, five yards here and five yards there, and being able to – like I said before – to put the game in my hands in those situations. I’ve improved a lot in those areas.”
DE J.J. WATT
How good is it to know you can wrap up the AFC South by winning on Sunday?
“We go into every week just wanting to win a game. Obviously, you win this one and you take the division. That’s a position, obviously, when you’re sitting at 0-3 I think we all would have said we’ll take it if we can get to that spot. We’re happy about it, we’re happy to be able to control our destiny and go out there and work toward a win.”
How about having the opportunity to do it in front of the home fans?
“Yeah, we’re excited to be back home. Obviously, after being out on the East Coast two weeks in a row it’s good to be back home, good to be back in front of our fans. Really excited about it. Love the energy in this building and we always, obviously, love playing at home.”
With the way last year went and this season started, what does it mean for this team to have already clinched a playoff berth?
“Like I said, when you start off 0-3 and then then you’re sitting here at 10-5 with a chance to win the division on Sunday. We’ve done a lot of good things over the course of those games since we were 0-3, but we have to make sure we do what we need to do to make sure that doesn’t all go to waste. All the work that we put in over the last couple of months, we have to make sure that we make all of that work count. We have to go out there on Sunday and take care of our business and obviously, trying to do that moving forward.”
How much do you want to head into the playoffs playing the kind of football that you were during the nine-game win streak?
“You want to go in, obviously, on a win. You want to go in playing good football and trying to keep it rolling and build some momentum and go out there and put your best foot forward.”
What did you guys do well against Jacksonville in Week 7 to hold them to seven points and what do you need to do well on Sunday?
“It just comes down to doing your job. Obviously, from the defensive side of the ball, we have to just, everybody do their job. You have to focus in on your keys, take care of your assignment, try and stop the run, try and get after the passer. All of the normal stuff you have to do as a defensive player. It just comes down to executing it. Everybody around the league knows what you have to do. It comes down to will you do it or not, and we just have to make sure that we do it.”
After stopping Philadelphia on back-to-back drives, how tough was it to see them come back and kick that game-winning field goal?
“It’s obviously very tough. But, I mean, it happened. We lost, we move past it. There’s really no sense in going back to it now. We have a chance to go out there and win the division on Sunday. So, like I said, obviously if you can go back and play games differently you’d do it, but you can’t, so we move on.”
With the new year coming up, do you take any time to sit back and reflect on everything that has happened to you the past year and how far you’ve come to get back to where you are?
“I haven’t done it a lot. I do it a little bit here and there. Little things will remind me of stuff in the past. When I see a guy like DT (Demaryius Thomas) go down in a tough situation and know how hard he’s worked to be at the position he’s at and what lies ahead of him, it hurts. It hurts. I mean, it sucks, and then it makes you reflect on your own situation, everything that you’ve been through. I’m happy. I’m fortunate to be out there playing. I’m glad to be in the situation that we’re in. I’m glad to be out there playing with the boys, but I think the offseason will be more of a chance for me to really look back on it all and reflect on what’s all gone on for me in the past couple of years, and then this year obviously.”
What have you guys done so well to shut down the running game?
“We have a lot of great players. We have a lot of great players who know what they’re supposed to do, who play well off each other. We’ve got some great guys on the D-line who can really fill up those gaps who may not get a ton of credit, but they deserve it. From D.J. (Reader) to Dunny (Brandon Dunn), Cov (Christian Covington) and Lo (Carlos Watkins) and those guys. Then, obviously, we’ve got great backers behind us who can fill in the gaps. We take pride in it. We go out there and we know that it’s a key to our success so we take pride in it. It’s not always the most fun job but we try and do it the best we can.”
How difficult is it to defend the running threat of Jaguars QB Blake Bortles’ game?
“Yeah, you’ve got to do your job. That’s what it always comes down to with a guy like that who can throw it or run it, and obviously with zone reads and things like that it comes down to guys doing their jobs, knowing your keys, knowing where your eyes are supposed to be and then making plays. Obviously, when they have the ability to make plays with their feet they have good reason to do it, so you have to make sure you just do your job and make tackles.”
How much do you cherish getting to this point in the season and knowing that you’ve earned the right to play these meaningful games and set yourself up to do something that’s obviously not a given every year?
“Like you said, the last two years I’ve had to watch any types of games, whether it’s meaningful or not, from the couch. So, just to be playing in games is a big thing, but to be playing in meaningful games and division championship-type games and to be going into the playoffs like that, it’s huge. When you think back to, like you said, where I was two years ago, where I was last year, I’m very happy and very thankful to be where I am. It’s thanks to a whole bunch of good people. I’ve always said it’s never a one-man operation. It’s taken a whole bunch of people. I’m very thankful. I’m thankful for my teammates and my coaches and the guys. We’ve got a great group and I love being around them. I love, every day, coming to work. It’s a blast.”