There is something special and somewhat unexpected going on in the city of Houston. In what appears to be a wide-open AFC South, the 1-2 Houston Texans are showing they can be competitive with 21-year-old rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud. Stroud is playing at an unexpected Pro Bowl level over the season’s first three weeks.
As I wrote in February, it was undeniable Stroud had accuracy, arm talent, poise and a quiet mind that would translate to the NFL.
But none of us expected this type of success to happen before the end of the season’s first month, considering he was drafted by a team with a first-time head coach (DeMeco Ryans), first-time offensive coordinator (Bob Slowik) and brand-new offensive system.
Remarkably, Stroud is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 900 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in his first three starts. He also has the most attempts of any NFL quarterback without an interception this season.
He has accomplished all this while playing behind an unsettled and injury-riddled offensive line, allowing the third-highest pressure rate in the league.
How Stroud’s Talent is Translating
Having watched all of Stroud’s NFL throws from the preseason through Week 3, it’s clear he and his new coordinator are growing each week.
Over the course of the preseason, there were clearly moments of uncertainty, indecision and inaccuracy. But just 45 days after his first preseason game, on the road against a divisional opponent, Stroud was the best player on the field.
🔶 280 passing yards
🔶 2 TDs
— NFL (@NFL) September 25, 2023
He showed off his arm talent, accuracy, courage and toughness in the pocket against the Jacksonville Jaguars while playing at a level far beyond his age and experience.
Prior to the draft, much was written about Stroud’s low S2 cognition test scores, suggesting he couldn’t process amid the chaos of the pocket and play the NFL game at a high level. The evidence is in, and Stroud has performed masterfully in the pocket, showing functional intelligence (the ability to slow the game down), playing with a quiet mind, throwing the ball accurately to all areas of the field and finishing progressions.
Everything we saw him do at Ohio State has more than translated to the NFL this season. Most importantly, he is taking care of the football with zero interceptions and one lost fumble.
In college, Stroud’s understanding of route structure and ability to work from one side of the field to the other before making split-second decisions appeared to result from excellent chemistry with his superbly talented Ohio State receiving corps. He’s already developing that chemistry early in his career in Houston, particularly with young receivers Nico Collins and Tank Dell.
Stroud’s chemistry with his receivers is among the biggest reasons for his immediate success in captaining the Texans’ offense. Still, there are many other facets to his game that have clearly translated.
Stroud’s footwork has been exceptionally consistent on multiple types of drops, and his feet almost always match the depths of the route his receiver is running. While we are only three weeks in, you have to be impressed by his comfort and apparent confidence in the passing game.
Within the pocket, when his offensive line has been firm and allowed him to step up to throw, Stroud has shown the instinctive ability to slide away from pressure while standing strong in the pocket. This allows him to deliver with the courage to take hits after completing his throwing motion.
His elite arm talent to throw to all parts of the field with velocity or touch and his impressive high-end accuracy to every part of the field cannot be overstated. What may be the most impressive part of his game thus far (besides having not thrown an interception) has been his accuracy against man coverage.
He leads the league with a 77.8 percent completion percentage (14 of 18) while tossing 222 yards and two touchdowns, per TruMedia. The league average completion percentage against man coverage is 58.5 percent.
For all the impressive stats Stroud has put up across the first three weeks of the season, his numbers against man coverage might be the most spectacular. This is where a quarterback must excel, and this is a very big deal.
What is Holding Stroud, Texans Back?
In my previous look at the three rookie quarterbacks entering Week 1 as starters, I posed three questions I felt would determine the initial success of each starter. My questions for Stroud were:
- Will he continue to be more decisive?
- Can he and his new offense mesh early?
- Can Houston utilize his arm talent and ability to extend plays?
Thus far, the answers to questions one and two have been a resounding yes. But the answer to question three is still somewhat uncertain. This is an area where he will presumably get better. The Texans’ rookie head coach and rookie play caller have empowered Stroud with aggressive play calling to attack every part of the field due to his high-level arm talent and spatial processing.
But his ability to win outside the pocket has not yet translated.
Through three games, Stroud has completed 73 of 103 passes (70.9 percent) for 877 yards and all four touchdowns while inside the pocket. Outside the pocket, where he was often dangerous as a playmaker in college, Stroud has only completed five of 18 throws (27.8 percent) for 29 yards on 1.6 yards per attempt.
He’s faced a lot of pressure on designed calls outside the pocket, particularly on rollouts to his non-dominant left side. I’d expect substantial growth in this area — with video analysis and structure — in the weeks to come.
Stroud has handled pass rush pressure well, for the most part, but it directly affects his ability to show his sufficient athleticism and “it factor” play making outside the pocket.
As the offensive line gets healthier and becomes more in sync, Stroud will face less pressure, and the team is hopeful the running game will improve, as well — Houston currently ranks 26th in total rushing yards.
The Texans’ coaching staff is doing a good job game planning and designing the offense around Stroud, particularly considering Slowik is a first-year play caller. The team has turned the young quarterback loose, and Slowik is fearless in his play selection, trusting his young quarterback to make the right decisions.
But one thing I would like to see added to the passing game is more hot, quick-answer routes coordinated with pass protection to counteract the blitzes the Texans face. There have been plays where protection and hot receivers have not been coordinated, leaving Stroud with no viable options.
Last week, I saw a moment where the correction was made, and I am certain this will be a priority moving forward.
There have not been a lot of great true pocket passers entering the NFL lately, and Stroud is a throwback talent in that regard.
What I am truly excited to see is his ability to win the game in the fourth quarter. The NFL is a 58 + 2 game, and the great quarterbacks find ways to finish the job and win on the game’s last drives. He has not had to do this yet. I look forward to watching Stroud in these moments that will undoubtedly occur and measuring him against the NFL’s top quarterbacks.
Houston is treating Stroud like a highly experienced veteran quarterback. It has been impressive to see the team’s collective fearlessness in choosing to let it rip with an aggressive up-field play calling style rather than protecting him with the run game, quick game and screen-focused approach. They have opened the offense up and the dividends in only three weeks have been massive.
I am certainly not anointing Stroud to the Hall of Fame or Pro Bowl status, but it is clear the stage is set for him to be special. Knowing the NFL season is fluid and changes weekly; we should be on alert that the balance of power in the AFC might be tilting to Houston.
Marc Trestman is a former NFL, CFL and college coach. After more than a decade as an offensive coordinator and a quarterback coach in the NFL, he coached in four Grey Cups in the CFL, winning three over seven years with Montreal and Toronto before becoming head coach of the Chicago Bears. Follow him on Twitter at @CoachTrestman.