Over the last two weeks, the Houston Texans have been in “Win or Go Home” situations. They needed a Week 18 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium to secure a berth in the NFL playoffs. In front of a national audience, Houston was able to grind out a 23-19 win and secure a spot in the postseason.
With a loss by the Jacksonville Jaguars the next day, the Texans moved up from the seventh seed to the fourth seed and were named the 2023 AFC South Champions, which meant a home game at NRG Stadium in the first round. What awaited them was a rematch with the Cleveland Browns, who had embarrassed the Texans two weeks prior with a 36-22 victory.
Of course, Cleveland had the confidence and swagger heading into the game, remembering what had transpired the last time the two teams met. For Houston, it was another one of those games where their backs were against the wall, and many people outside of the city did not give them a chance to win and advance.
They shocked everyone but themselves in ending the Browns’ season with a 45-14 defeat in the same stadium they had been embarrassed in less than a month ago.
All the accolades thrown toward rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, who combined for 538 yards passing and five touchdowns while not having a single turnover in those two games, are well deserved.
Yet, there is another crucial component that has allowed Stroud and the rest of the offensive skill players to be successful in those games as well as the season, and that is the play of the offensive line led by four-time Pro Bowl starter Laremy Tunsil, who has been a fortified brick wall in protecting the blindside of Stroud this season. This comes as no surprise since you can’t get to Stroud’s locker without passing by Tunsil’s, which is right next to his, and he also protects that.
What has gone unnoticed by many is how easily Stroud has operated in the pocket, and that is due to the play of Tunsil, rookie Juice Scruggs, Michael Dieter, Shaq Mason, and George Fant. All have done a solid job over the last month and a half to help the Texans advance to the AFC divisional game against the Baltimore Ravens.
“They’ve understood and taken to heart that we’re going to do everything we can to make sure our quarterback doesn’t get hit. They care a lot about each other. They care a lot about the quarterback,” said Texans OC Bobby Slowik about the offensive line play this season. #Sarge pic.twitter.com/jnaVkND7TA
— #SARGE (@BigSargeSportz) January 20, 2024
“I think it is a credit to the group of guys who takes a tremendous amount of pride in doing whatever is asked of them, and they have never flinched,” offensive line coach Chris Strausser told Texans Wire. “Obviously, they are aware that they have a very talented quarterback playing behind them, and they take pride in keeping him clean.”
The Week 18 matchup against the Colts and wild card game against the Browns are a true testament to the grit and determination that the offensive line plays with going up against an Indianapolis defense led by the NFL’s leading tackler in linebacker Zaire Franklin and the NFL’s top-ranked Cleveland defense led by First Team All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett. Stroud was sacked twice in those games, with both coming in the Colts’ game.
Over the last four games, they have allowed a combined six sacks, four of those occurring when Stroud was out for two games due to being placed in concussion protocol. The unfamiliarity of playing with backup quarterbacks Case Keenum and Davis Mills caused some of the timing to be off in the protection. Still, the Texans salvaged a 1-1 record during those games.
“Yeah, it’s been fun to see,” said Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik. “Rarely has it felt like we’ve had a consistent five out there. It’s really been the whole offensive line room and how they’ve gone out and they’ve performed every week. They’ve understood and taken to heart that we’re going to do everything we can to make sure our quarterback doesn’t get hit. They care a lot about each other. They care a lot about the guys they’re playing with. They care a lot about the quarterback, and they make sure they do everything they can to put that on tape.”
Tunsil echoed those sentiments with a smile when Texans Wire asked him how the continuity throughout the season along the offensive line has played a significant factor in the team’s success. He also included the importance of the unit being so close and everyone having a voice, including the backups and injured players.
“I think we built that continuity in training camp,” Tunsil said. “To play on the offensive line, you have got to be close. We built that during training camp by always having dinners every Thursday or Friday. We are always talking to each other. It is personal and that is how we always treat each other. We just stayed consistent with our techniques and our drill work and that kept us close to each other.”
Heading into Saturday’s matchup against the Texans, many Ravens defenders were asked about playing Houston again and how much they have grown. Many questions were answered with Stroud’s name being involved, but outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy recognized the guys in the trenches for the Texan’s success.
“I think something that not many people have talked about is their O-line play and how well they have performed,” Van Noy told reporters this week. “[My] former teammate over there, Shaq Mason, is playing really, really good football, as well as [Laremy] Tunsil and [Michael] Deiter, their center. They are just doing a really good job, as a group, playing. So, I think, collectively, C.J. Stroud has kind of overshadowed some of the guys that have been playing really, really well. But they’ve been a really complete offense.”