HOUSTON (AP) — Halfway through his rookie season, quarterback C.J. Stroud has completely transformed the Houston Texans.
The Texans (4-4) still have work to do, but with four wins they’ve already surpassed their total from last season with nine games remaining.
The second overall pick in the draft set the NFL record for most yards passing by a rookie Sunday by throwing for 470 yards and five touchdowns. His game-winning drive in the last minute against the Buccaneers capped a 39-37 win and was one of the most thrilling victories in franchise history.
“Dude is special man and you’ve seen that from Day 1,” receiver Nico Collins said. “Since he’s stepped foot in here, he’s had that ‘it’ factor with him and it’s showing every week. Every single day he’s just itching to get better.”
Entering Monday, Stroud ranks seventh in the NFL and first among rookies with 2,270 yards passing. He has thrown 14 touchdown passes with just one interception.
His development is a revelation for a team that hasn’t had consistent quarterback play since Deshaun Watson sat out the 2021 season after requesting a trade before being dealt to the Browns last year.
Stroud is encouraged by his work so far, but has much bigger goals for this season than simply leading a .500 team.
“I don’t think we can be stopped when we’re on our ‘A’ game,” Stroud said. “It’s a big-time win for us, and November and December is when you want to be playing your best ball. So, now we just want to … trailblaze into the playoffs, and, hopefully, get a chance to win the division and everything like that.”
While Stroud is Houston’s biggest rookie star, several other first-year players have helped improve the team this season.
Defensive end Will Anderson, whom the Texans moved up to select at No. 3, has started each game. The former Alabama standout has 30 tackles, including three for losses, two sacks and nine quarterback hits.
Receiver Tank Dell, a third-round pick from the University of Houston, ranks second on the team with 454 yards receiving. He had 114 yards receiving with two touchdowns Sunday to give him four TD receptions, which ties him for second most by a rookie receiver in franchise history.
The Texans have also gotten solid play from linebacker Henry To’o To’o, a fifth-round pick from Alabama. He has appeared in each game with six starts and has 53 tackles and a fumble recovery.
And perhaps almost as important as Stroud’s emergence, is the work of first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans. A former linebacker on the team, Ryans became Houston’s fourth coach in as many seasons after spending the past two years as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator. Players rave about the leadership of the 39-year-old Ryans, who has brought stability to a job that has been a revolving door in recent years.
He believes he’s helped transform the team's culture and was impressed with how the players responded to adversity Sunday.
“Everything that could have possibly gone wrong for us, it went wrong,” he said. “But it didn’t matter because of the mindset of our locker room. Guys who are going to fight for each other, guys who believe in each other, and guys who are going to hold each other accountable, and that’s what good culture is.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
While Stroud has Houston’s passing game ranked fourth in the NFL, the running game has failed to get going and ranks 27th by averaging just 87 yards a game.
The Texans managed 53 yards rushing Sunday, which was their second-worst ground performance of the season.
Dameon Pierce leads the team with 327 yards rushing, but has struggled after running for 939 yards as a rookie. He missed Sunday’s game with an ankle injury and Houston’s leading rusher was Devin Singletary, who managed 26 yards on 13 carries.
RB Dare Ogunbowale. The reserve running back, who has been inactive for five games this season, stepped in as the team’s emergency kicker in the second half Sunday with Kaʻimi Fairbairn out with a quadriceps injury. He made a 29-yard field goal that gave Houston a 33-30 lead in the fourth quarter to become the first non-kicker or punter to make a field goal in the NFL since Wes Welker did it in 2004.
Singletary failed to do anything on the ground Sunday in his first start of the season when he averaged just 2 yards a carry. The former Buffalo player has done little to help the Texans this season with 62 attempts for 209 yards.
Ryans didn’t have an update on any of the team’s many injured players Monday, but the Texans could have to sign a kicker this week if Fairbairn remains out. … Other players injured Sunday included S M.J. Stewart (shoulder), DT Hassan Ridgeway (ankle), LB Jake Hansen (hand), WR John Metchie (ribs) and S Jimmie Ward (hamstring).
470. Along with setting a rookie record with 470 yards passing Sunday, Stroud’s performance was a franchise record for most yards passing in a regulation game. Matt Schaub has the two highest passing days in Texans’ history with 527 and 497 yards, but both of those came in overtime wins.
Stroud and the Texans hope to build on their big win over Tampa Bay when they face a tough road test at Cincinnati on Sunday.
“I think it’s something that can get us rolling,” Stroud said. “Momentum is everything in this league and in the game of football. We’ve got to ride this momentum and work really hard in practice this week.”
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