Cardinals know full well not to underestimate Texans rookie C.J. Stroud

Nov 17, 2023, 3:54 PM

C.J. Stroud scores a touchdown...

C.J. Stroud #7 of the Houston Texans runs for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium on November 12, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

TEMPE — Facing a rookie quarterback usually gives defenses some added juice heading into a matchup.

Unlike their veteran counterparts who have been around the NFL block a time or two and know the games defenses play, a rookie’s room for error is much larger while the experience is lesser.

That is unless you’re the Arizona Cardinals (2-8) traveling to Houston for a Week 11 matchup against the Texans (5-4) and rookie phenom C.J. Stroud.

“He doesn’t look like a rookie out there, I know that,” Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon said Wednesday. “His process is extremely fast, very accurate and a quick release. They are the top 1-2 in explosive passes in the NFL right now and the explosives come up on all downs, mixed downs and third and known pass (downs).

“He’s doing a really good job, that’s why they’re above .500 and right in the playoff hunt. Playing good football right now, really good football. He jumped off the tape.”

Despite entering the league as recent as April in the form of the No. 2 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Stroud is striding through his first year as a pro.

Through nine games, Stroud has completed 61.6% of his passes for 2,626 yards. That’s an average of 291.8 yards per game, good enough for first among NFL passers.

Stroud is also keeping the ball out of harm’s way while still stretching the field behind 15 touchdowns to just two picks. He’s posting a 0.6% interception rate in addition to orchestrating 43 explosive plays of 20 yards or more to Texans pass catchers, two more high marks across the league.

His play in 2023 not only has him as a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year, it’s thrown him squarely in the MVP discussion given what he’s put on tape and Houston’s current standing as a playoff team if the season ended Friday.

Just to give you an idea of how rare that is, the last and only time a rookie won MVP was when the late great Jim Brown accomplished the feat in 1957.

“He deserves to be in that MVP race, I know that kind of hit recently,” defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said Tuesday. “He is playing at a very high level and you can see this guy’s going to be a really good player for a long time in this league.

“Just his ability to put the ball accurately where it needs to be continuously. He’s got great arm strength, he can get the ball off on time. If it’s not there, he knows how to get to his checkdowns, he knows when to throw it away. If he needs to escape and improvise, he can do that. He doesn’t look anything like a rookie quarterback. He looks like a veteran who knows where he wants to go with the football.”

On top of Stroud’s ability with the football in his hand, the quarterback has also had the luxury of staying upright more than most. Entering Week 11, Stroud has been sacked 19 times. Only six other NFL offensive lines can say they have allowed fewer.

For the Cardinals, it’s all about forcing Stroud into mistakes and capitalizing on them. That can come from establishing the pass rush early and getting him off schedule or getting him to turn the ball over, as seen last week.

Houston’s fifth win of the season was a hairy one, with Stroud committing three turnovers in the 30-27 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10.

The QB was dinged with a pair of fumbles and a late interception, though still willed his team to victory thanks to the Bengals’ one touchdown off of Texans turnovers.

This week, it’s all about sequencing defensive stops with offensive scores for the Cardinals if they hope to have a chance against a hot Texans team.

“I love it”

Stroud’s play hasn’t just caught the eyes of Cardinals defenders in 2023, with quarterback and 2019 Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray taking notice of what the rookie is bringing to the table.

“I love it. To see what he’s doing, I love it,” Murray said Wednesday. “For a fellow African American quarterback to be doing what he’s doing at this level, especially in his rookie year, it’s impressive. If you love the game, if you really love the art and the detail of the position — he’s playing it the right way.

“He’s obviously leading those guys. They believe in him, and they trust him so I’m proud of him. I’m excited to see his career.”

How about a little help, Paris Johnson?

If there’s one man inside the Cardinals locker room that knows more about Stroud’s tendencies, it’s rookie offensive lineman Paris Johnson Jr. having spent their college days at Ohio State.

This week, though, Johnson is stuck between a rock and hard place when it comes to his college QB and giving up information.

“It’s hard, because it’s a business but it’s also my family at the same time. … The one thing about his game is he’s going to get the ball out fast. He knows his reads, he knows where the ball needs to get to, but we all know he doesn’t want to run the ball. He wants to stay in the pocket … but when he runs, he can go.”

The last time the two were in the same building was on draft night when Stroud was showcasing Johnson’s new Cardinals threads after both had been taken in the first round.

Six months later, they meet on opposite sides of the gridiron.

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Cardinals know full well not to underestimate Texans rookie C.J. Stroud