Texans rookie C.J. Stroud shows improvement in loss to Dolphins

C.J. Stroud rolled out smoothly on a bootleg play Saturday afternoon, creating a large passing lane and a clear sight line for him as he swiveled his hips and shoulder pads in the direction of wide receiver Noah Brown.

And the Texans rookie quarterback delivered a pinpoint spiral to Brown for the completion and a first down. It was one of his five consecutive completions during the first half of a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins at NRG Stadium. It was clearly a step in the right direction for the Texans’ projected and unofficial QB1 during an otherwise rough preseason home game overall for the AFC South franchise at NRG Stadium during a 28-3 loss

It marked a major departure from how Stroud struggled in his NFL debut against the New England Patriots a week ago as he was intercepted by when he was late on his throw after staring down his primary read. It also showed why the Texans will ultimately name him their official starting quarterback before the first game of the season against the Baltimore Ravens.

This was clearly an encouraging performance for the Texans, and for the second overall pick of the draft, especially with the defense unable to stop the Dolphins’ running game and the offense having a sputtering ground attack. It was a solid, albeit unspectacular outing for Stroud, but it’s a foundation he can build on.

“I feel like I took a step,” Stroud said. “Definitely got to clean up some things, but, overall, I felt like I got in a good rhythm, and I started playing football like I’m used to. It felt good. I think I learned that just me is okay. This week I had flashes, and I think I made a lot of good plays. Still made some mistakes, but I think I made more plays than I made mistakes, and I think that’s a step from New England and a step from training camp from there where things could have been elsewhere.

“I just want to keep growing. I have really good vets on the offensive and defensive side of the ball that help me out a lot. I think for me, just telling myself that just me is okay. Accept my nerves, accept my negative plays or accept everything that comes with the game because it’s going to just entitle me to get better and better. It’s something I’m definitely looking forward to.”

Stroud made definite strides one week after a rough NFL debut against Patriots when he completed 2 of 4 passes for just 13 yards behind a makeshift offensive line, displaying accuracy, poise and sound mechanics as he operated the Texans’ first-team offense for his second consecutive start. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist from Ohio State played an entire half before giving way to veteran Davis Mills, completing 7 of 12 passes for 60 yards and no interceptions. He completed 5 of 6 passes for 52 yards on his second drive of the game.

Unlike a week ago when he didn’t have the benefit of Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil, star running back Dameon Pierce and other prominent starters, Stroud looked much more comfortable in the pocket as he wasn’t under heavy duress the way he was against an aggressive Patriots defensive scheme when he was sacked once. This time, Stroud ran the Texans offense adeptly as he overcame a slow start during which he threw two incompletions, including one on fourth down, during a botched prime red-zone scoring opportunity following middle linebacker Denzel Perryman intercepting Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on the first play from scrimmage.

Stroud spread the football around and showed chemistry and timing with wide receivers Robert Woods, Nico Collins and Brown.

Although the Texans didn’t have the kind of efficiency the Dolphins showed throughout the game, Stroud did have an upgraded game.

“I think overall just with the operation of the offense, I thought C.J. was more efficient,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He felt more comfortable, and I think just everyone around him played better, which allowed him to play better. I’m proud of the progression that C.J. took this week. That’s what we want to see. You want to see improvement, so I’m proud of what C.J. did.”

“What I saw from C.J.’s throws was the ball was coming out on time. It was very accurate. The ball placement was very good. So, it’s encouraging. Seeing him just seeing him more comfortable, and I saw him having fun playing the game, seeing him also being able to scramble out of the pocket and make a play. It’s fun when you can see guys actually enjoying football, having fun doing it. If he continues to grow, we’re going to be just fine.”

Inside the film room, on the sideline, in the huddle and on the football field, Stroud has been unfazed by the intense stress of the NFL.

Whether it’s a good moment like his three touchdown passes in the red zone to rookie wide receiver Tank Dell in joint practices this week before kickoff against the Dolphins or a rough sequence when he held the football longer than he should have and stared down Dell against the Patriots for an interception in his NFL debut a week ago, Stroud hasn’t rode the wave of emotions that accompany the learning experiences of training camp and the preseason.

Stroud acknowledged that he dealt with some self-generated pressure and pressed during the Patriots game. He got some helpful advice from linebacker Garret Wallow

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out there and play perfect,” Stroud said. “I was talking to my guy Wallow, our linebacker, and he’s like, ‘You can’t put that pressure on yourself. It’s not possible. Those guys get paid, too.’ At the end of the day, I appreciated my teammate saying it to me. 

“I don’t know if he knows it, but it meant a lot because I put a lot of pressure on myself. I think it’s a good thing. I want to be perfect. I want to be the best I can be, but if it doesn’t happen, it’s all about the next play.”

Texans quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson likes what he’s seeing from the second overall pick from Ohio State. Especially the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist’s demeanor and reaction to mistakes.

“Absolutely, he’s a super mature kid,” Johnson told KPRC 2 after the Patriots game. “He has a great foundation. He played a lot of big-time football in college, and it doesn’t seem too big for him. That was a a cool thing to see how he handle the adversity. It wasn’t exactly easy out there. The Patriots are a really good team with a really good scheme. I think he learned from it and you move on.”

Stroud was a two-year starter for Ohio State, where he threw for 8,123 yards with 85 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions as the Buckeyes went 21-4. His 85 touchdowns over two seasons broke a Big Ten record held previously by Drew Brees.

“I think he’s growing and growing as a quarterback,” Woods said. “He’s grown and learned so much since we first got here.”

The Texans are doing everything they can to get Stroud ready for the season opener. They haven’t officially named him QB1 yet, but he is listed first on the unofficial depth chart.

“We’ll have a starter in Baltimore,” Ryans said. “You guys will see the starter when we get to Baltimore.”

Stroud’s accuracy and overall command of the game have made an impression, including with opposing coaches.

“I think he is a very natural thrower that has a unique gift of ball placement,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said. “He’s probably not bragging about ball placement right now because as an NFL quarterback, as a rookie, you’re in a foreign language.

“So even when you’re doing awesome, you’re stressed out. Your job is to deliver messages to players. And so he looks the part to me with the way he throws the ball. And you can tell that he has an aura of confidence. That’s exciting to see from a player.”

From winning the starting job at Ohio State as he beat out several blue-chip recruits to replace Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields to matching wits with the eventual national champion Georgia Bulldogs and their ultra-talented defense in a playoff game to how he has handled the competition he’s clearly winning over Mills, nothing has been too big for Stroud at any stage of his football career.

Signed to a four-year, $36.3 million contract that includes a $23.3 million signing bonus all paid upfront, Stroud got off to a fast start at training camp.

Stroud could still galvanize an offense that was overly dependent on Pierce a year ago. Mills was intercepted 15 times a year ago with three returned for touchdowns, 17 touchdowns, a 78.8 passer rating and a 3-10-1 record as a starter. He was replaced at one point by journeyman Kyle Allen. Mills has played well, for the most part, at camp. He hasn’t played to Stroud’s level, though.

The Texans have communicated that they want Stroud to earn the starting job and ascend to QB1 status. Nothing has been handed to him.

What Stroud hasn’t done is press. He wasn’t immediately named the starting quarterback the way that the Carolina Panthers did with top overall pick Bryce Young or the Indianapolis Colts recently did with Anthony Richardson. If that bothers Stroud, it’s not evident in his words or body language. If anything, he’s exactly on the same page with the Texans’ coaching staff. The goal: get him ready to start on the road in the first game of the regular season against the Ravens.

Pierce, the Texans’ Pro Bowl alternate running back, wants to do everything he can to make life easier for Stroud.

At the same time, he sees progress from the rookie.

“He’s working,” Pierce said. “That’s one thing I can say about C.J., he’s working every day to get in that playbook, getting those calls out. It’s really not the plays, it’s the calling. You get a little tongue-tied sometimes, but we’re going to be alright.”

The way that Stroud performed at Ohio State, the way he earned scholarship offers after excelling in Elite 11 competitions against Young, his friend. It all suggests that he’s ready to keep climbing the ladder in his progression.

And that showed against the Dolphins.

“I think I’m taking steps every week,” Stroud said. “I’m starting to see the game. It’s starting to slow down for me, and I’m seeing things a lot more clean. In situations like that, the quicker I can get up there and diagnose the coverage, the blitz-look or whatever it is, the more dynamic this offense will be.

“Once you put pressure on defenses, that’s when you put them in a rock and a hard place and just keep that pressure on them. For us, that’s what we want to be. We want to be a high explosive offense. We want to make plays. So, I think we’re taking those steps, but definitely going to keep growing and have to get a lot better.”

The way Stroud found Woods for an 11-yard completion and a first down was one of his most impressive throws.

Stroud also had a delay of game penalty and consecutive incompletions on third down and fourth down to give the football back to Miami after Perryman’s interception.

It helped Stroud immensely that the pass protection was much cleaner this time after he was under heavy duress against the Patriots and sacked once. This time, he wasn’t sacked at all. Nor was Mills, who completed 10 of 22 passes for 94 yards in relief of Stroud.

“I think everyone can see that our offensive line, they protected much better this week,” Ryans said. “That was good to see. That’s what we needed from our offensive line. I challenged them in last night’s meeting and before the game, making sure that the quarterback had a good pocket to throw from.”

Stroud completed 7 of his 10 final throws after the initial drive.

“I definitely think I got a good groove and a good rhythm,” Stroud said. “And after that, we started clicking, started getting some good completions and spreading the ball around the field.”

The Texans need to get better on third downs. They were 2 of 12 overall in that critical category of the game.

While there’s still room to grow, Stroud showed that he can get much better in one week’s time.

“For me, it’s just making everybody around me better,” Stroud said. “I feel like I’m taking steps every week. I’m really excited for the future, and I actually appreciate the mistakes and the lessons learned because you don’t really get them anywhere else. You’ve got to learn, and you’ve got to have scars. I think learning those lessons are definitely valuable.”

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

Miami Dolphins v Houston Texans

Photo: Logan Riely / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

Texans rookie Tank Dell held out of game with minor leg issue

Texans rookie wide receiver Tank Dell, a standout against the New England Patriots with an acrobatic touchdown, was held out of a preseason game Saturday against the Miami Dolphins as a precautionary measure.

Although Dell did warmups, he was held out of the game with a tight leg muscle. Dell is expected to return to practice relatively soon. Another reason why Dell didn’t play was load management after he had a considerable amount of mileage during the Texans’ joint practice sessions this week, per a source.

“Felt a little tightness there, Tank will be fine,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “We didn’t think it would be smart to put him out there, but Tank will be fine.”

Defensive tackle Roy Lopez left the game with a leg injury that is not regarded as serious, per a league source. Lopez was examined on the sideline in the blue medical tent, but remained on the field with his teammates.

Other minor injuries included tight end Nick Vannett rolling his ankle and remaining in the game and linebacker Garret Wallow limping off the field before returning to play.

Running backs Gerrid Doaks and Dare Ogunbowale were banged up from joint practices with the Dolphins and didn’t play.

Running back Mike Boone played through an oblique injury and caught a team-high four passes for 35 yards, including a 24-yard reception off a pass from Davis Mills out of the backfield.

Texans offensive tackle Tytus Howard is making steady progress in his recovery from broken hand and surgery Howard broke it in two places in practice and had metal hardware inserted to aid healing process. Howard has not been ruled out for a potential return as soon as the first game against the Baltimore Ravens, per a league source. Howard is no longer in a cast and is wearing a brace on his hand.

Several players didn’t play Saturday, including defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, linebackers Blake Cashman (minor hamstring injury) and Christian Kirksey (strained hamstring), tight end Brevin Jordan (strained hamstring), safety Brandon Hill (hamstring), defensive tackle Thomas Booker (hand in a cast), quarterback Case Keenum (soft-tissue leg injury), wide receiver Jared Wayne (Grade 2 hamstring strain, cornerback Jacobi Francis (sprained ankle), defensive end Chase Winovich and offensive tackle Charlie Heck (foot issue, physically unable to perform list).

Houston Texans v New England Patriots

Photo: Omar Rawlings / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

Sponsored Content

Sponsored Content