C.J. Stroud has arrived — at least according to the box scores and fantasy football.
The Houston Texans rookie quarterback has completed 63.7% of his passes for 626 yards and two touchdowns through his first two games. It’s enough that Stroud has the fourth-most passing yards through two weeks. To contextualize just how good Stroud has been, the rookie record for passing yards in a season was previously set by the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert at 4,336 yards.
Stroud, if he sustained the ridiculous pace he’s set against the Ravens and Colts, would beat that record by nearly 1,000 yards and throw for over 5,300.
The Ohio State product has flashed the accuracy that made him a highlight machine in the Big Ten. He’s shown the mobility that had scouts raising their eyes when the Buckeyes nearly upset Georgia in the College Football Playoff. He’s shown the poise to produce huge passing numbers despite a crumbling Texans offensive line that has had him sacked a league-leading 11 times. This is what Houston and their offensive coaching staff likely dreamed of.
The biggest benefactor of Stroud’s early success as a passer? The pass catchers.
Interesting how dramatically Houston course corrected with Tank Dell after he was significantly outpaced by Woods/Nico/Brown against Baltimore.
— John Crumpler (@JohnHCrumpler) September 18, 2023
Nico Collins is on pace for multiple personal career bests in his third season. The Michigan product has 13 receptions for 226 yards and a touchdown. Rookie Tank Dell, after a slow start, has 10 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. Veteran Robert Woods is having the type of bounce back campaign many around the Texans expected, with 12 catches for 136 yards.
This stands in stark contrast to the running game. Dameon Pierce, expected to be a breakout star in his second season, has struggled on the ground to the tune of 2.7 yards per carry, 26 attempts for 69 yards and no scores. Devin Singletary has been slightly worse off at 2.6 yards per carry.
Houston in heavy personnel groupings (2+ RB or 2+ TE):
21 plays, 53 yards
Houston in 3 wide receiver, 11-personnel:
58 plays, 336 yards, 2 TD's
Bobby Slowik might want to abandon the premise they're a running football team. They just can't move fronts that way #WeAreTexans
— John Crumpler (@JohnHCrumpler) September 18, 2023
Those results are even further exacerbated when Houston attempts to force the run with heavier personnel. Against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2, Houston ran 21 plays with heavier groupings, featuring multiple backs or tight ends, and averaged less than three yards per play. Unsurprisingly, their best results came when the previously mentioned Collins, Dell, and Woods were allowed to feature on the field together. The Texans ran 58 plays in 11 personnel for 336 yards and their two touchdowns.
All of this comes within the context of Houston’s offensive line struggles. Laremy Tunsil, Tytus Howard and Juice Scruggs remain out, leaving what was supposed to be an early strength for Houston one of their biggest weaknesses.
Dameon Pierce had just a 26.7% success rate today on the ground while rushing 15 times for 31 yards (2.1 ypc).
He was stuffed on 40% of his carries.
Houston desperately needs their offensive line to get healthy. Until then, they probably continue to lean on Stroud #WeAreTexans
— John Crumpler (@JohnHCrumpler) September 17, 2023
This begs an interesting question for Houston and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik: Is it time for the run-first Texans, an identity they preached all summer, to make an early pivot towards their biggest strengths?
Their possible avenues to find easier ways to run as a pass-first team are certainly worth discussing as Stroud launches the ball with ease to begin his NFL debut.
If Houston wants to lean into a pass-first identity, they wouldn’t have to change much. 105 of their 147 offensive plays have been passes thus far and they’ve leaned into getting their receiving trio on the field, running 11-personnel for 110 or 72.8% of their plays.
Dameon Pierce has one run of 10+ yards this season: It came from 11-personnel (3WR/1TE)
Houston is running "11" at the 8th highest clip (72%) in the league, but they're 31st in running (19.1%) from that formation.
— John Crumpler (@JohnHCrumpler) September 20, 2023
An opportunity may exist though in how they script these plays. Houston has hardly taken advantage of their passing threat to create running lanes and soft boxes for Dameon Pierce, often instead opting for more blockers. Slowik has run from this formation on only 19.1% of those plays, good for 31st in the league.
Allowing Pierce to run alongside Dalton Schultz and the receiving trio not only would allow for more motion concepts but would force defenses to match with nickel and dime personnel packages that will have a much harder time tackling the NFL’s reigning Angriest Runner. They just have to lean into it a little earlier.
Could Houston do a better job threatening the pass in earlier downs?
1st down: 36.2% under center, 67.2% 11-personnel
3rd down: 2.8% under center, 94.6% 11-personnel
Would love to see Bobby Slowik threaten to stretch the field early & often against Jacksonville #WeAreTexans
— John Crumpler (@JohnHCrumpler) September 21, 2023
Houston’s 11-personnel grouping despite present for most of their plays, including 94.6% of third downs, is featured on just roughly two thirds of their first downs. Presenting a more pass-threatening, symmetrical threat to defenses earlier in the downs could make a world of difference. These tells are even more incriminating when 36.2% of Houston’s first downs are under center, compared to less than 3% of their 3rd down looks.
Houston has a threatening passing game highlighted by young pass catchers and a quarterback that is validating his selection at second overall. Their willingness to lean into passing often, and more importantly, passing early could make a world of difference.