Just a scant few plays into his NFL career, rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud of the Houston Texans made a big mistake. In all likelihood, it will not be his last mistake during his NFL career.
And both of those statements are perfectly fine.
Stroud got his first true taste of NFL action on Thursday night, as the Texans traveled to Foxborough to take on Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Stroud was under center to start the game for Houston, and completed his first pass on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
But it was his second pass attempt that is generating a lot of attention in the hours after the game.
Facing a 3rd-and-21 situation, Stroud tried to hit Tank Dell on a 7-stop route along the right side of the field. The rookie QB locked onto Dell early in his drop — more on that in a second — and let fly with a throw to the right side of the field.
Stepping in front of Dell? Patriots defensive back Jalen Mills for the interception:
After the game, Stroud talked about this play, and what he needs to learn for next time.
“Just trust my eyes,” Stroud said after the game. “I saw a certain look to where I knew on film that they could run that to where the safety, if his man blocks that he’ll come off and really be locked into my eyes. Just lost track of that, and just forced it and should have just checked it down to Dalton [Keene]. But it was a great play by 2 [Jalen Mills], by kind of just hiding out. He was kind of ducking low, so I didn’t really see him. I thought I threw a good pass, but of course it wasn’t. Hell of a play by No. 2, and just put that in my back pocket and learn from it.”
The rookie quarterback when on to outline what he’ll do the next time he is in this situation.
“If I could do it over again, I’d just take the checkdown. That look isn’t superb for what I threw. Just got to be better on my part,” Stroud added. “Got to make a play smarter and not put my defense in a bad situation, put them right in field goal range, and that’s my mistake. Even though I’m a rookie, still trying to play as a vet and play sound football and not only protect my offense but to protect the defense, as well. Yeah, I would have just checked it down to Dalton after he checked flat and punted and hopefully got another drive.”
Watching this play, what stands out are Stroud’s eyes. Looking at the end-zone angle of the play, you can see that after he takes a look at the safeties to confirm the coverage — more on that in a second — he locks onto Dell along the right side of the field. That leads Mills right to the route, and the football. Add in a hitch-step that Stroud uses, as he resets in the pocket before making this throw, and you have the turnover.
In the immediate aftermath of the interception, social media was buzzing about how Stroud was fooled. What was New England’s coverage on the play? Cover-2 Man? Cover-1 Robber with Mills in a Robber technique waiting to pick his pocket?
As it turns out, neither. Mills was going off-script in the secondary.
“I was actually in man-to-man with the tight end [Dalton Schultz],” Mills said of his interception. “He was in the backfield, though. It was a longer down and distance, so I kind of showed a two-high look. I think it was Myles Bryant who was next to me. Once the tight end kind of chipped and released through, I knew that I could take him from depth, but I just kept eyes on the quarterback. He just so happened to look to his right and my left, and I was able to get underneath the route and intercept the ball.”
Freelancing defenders. Trusting your eyes. Getting to a checkdown and living to fight another day.
All things a young quarterback needs to learn to succeed in the NFL.
Even his first completion shows room for improvement. Houston opened the game with a mirrored stick concept, with a pair of stick routes to each side of the field. New England dropped back into Cover-3 zone coverage, and Stroud first looked to his right before finally coming to Nico Collins, running the outside stick route along the left sideline:
Even on this throw, Stroud could benefit from getting the ball out quicker. Nico Collins still makes the catch, and gives rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez a nice introduction to the NFL, but a quicker throw likely leads to a bigger gain for the Texans.
Again, all part of the learning process. Something Stroud’s coach also addressed following the game.
“With the interception, I think Mills made a really nice play, veteran player. Made a nice play. We probably were a little late there with the ball, and it was a learning lesson, and that’s why we do preseason,” said Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans. “That’s why it’s important to get live game reps, so you can see how can you come out and improve, where can you improve, what do I need to do different next time on those certain plays, and of course offensively we want to be in position to take care of the ball better.”
However, when you are drafted second overall in the NFL Draft, the expectations are different. Fans and analysts expect more from you as a quarterback, and following Stroud’s debut (he finished 2-of-4 for 13 yards and the interception) and the solid work from fellow quarterback Davis Mills, the takes are flying. Ideas that Stroud should sit behind Mills, that the rookie quarterback is going to struggle processing the field, and that he might even be a bust.
We can slow down there.
Mistakes happen in life, and they certainly happen in the NFL. No quarterback is perfect, or has a mistake-free game. There is always something you can do better, and there is always an area to improve. Stroud made some mistakes on Thursday night, and that is totally fine. It is an important part of the learning process.
Interceptions are part of that learning process, albeit a painful one for a quarterback. The next step of the process Stroud now faces is applying lessons from Thursday night into his game going forward. What does he do the next time he faces this coverage, or something similar? Does he trust his eyes? Does he speed up his read? Does he take the checkdown?
If you are a Texans fan, what you want to see is how he applies lessons from Thursday night to his game going forward.
Mistakes are going to happen, but the big thing for Stroud, as it is with all rookie quarterbacks, is whether the right lessons from those mistakes follow.