FLOWERY BRANCH — Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud is no stranger to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
He led Ohio State against Georgia in a major battle in the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve. While Georgia prevailed, Stroud showed on that day why he would be selected very high in the NFL draft.
Stroud, who was taken second overall, and the surprising Houston Texans (2-2) are set to face the Falcons (2-2) at 1 p.m. Sunday at the palatial $1.5 billion stadium.
Stroud is off to a dazzling start in the NFL. After two losses, he has guided the Texans to victories at Jacksonville and at home over the Steelers. The Texans pounded the Jaguars 37-17 on Sept. 24. The Falcons are coming off a 23-7 loss to those same Jags.
“I think they should have a lot of confidence after the last two games,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said on a virtual call Monday. “He’s made some plays. He’s a talented player.”
In the 30-6 win over the Steelers on Sunday, Stroud completed 16 of 30 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns, including a 53-yard strike to wide receiver Nico Collins.
“That’s the thing about C.J. is you saw it coming out of Ohio State,” Smith said. “He was probably the only, to Georgia’s defense’s credit, C.J. was the only one that looked pretty good against what’s arguably been the best defense in college football the last couple of years.”
But no one projected such a fast start for the rookie, and there was supposed to an issue about his ability to process defenses, according to his low S2 cognition test scores.
“So, it shouldn’t surprise anybody,” Smith said. “He’s a good football player. He’s making a lot of good throws. Maybe we can acknowledge that there’s no perfect test coming out.”
Stroud is moving the ball around and has 151 attempts without an interception.
Collins, who is his favorite target, had seven catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over the Steelers. He has 22 catches for 428 yards and three touchdowns on the season.
Also, wide receiver Tank Dell has 16 catches for 267 yards and two touchdowns.
The Texans rushed 38 times for 139 yards to help balance the offense against the Steelers. Running back Dameon Pierce, of Bainbridge, is their leading rusher with 64 carries for 181 yards and a touchdown.
Marc Trestman, a former NFL head coach, watched all of Stroud’s throws from the exhibition season through the first three regular-season games and noted in an article for the the33rdteam.com, that Stroud is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 900 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in his first three starts.
Trestman also believes those low cognitive scores were misleading.
“The evidence is in, and Stroud has performed masterfully in the pocket, showing functional intelligence (the ability to slow down the game), playing with a quiet mind, throwing the ball accurately to all areas of the field and finishing progressions,” Trestman wrote. “Everything we saw him do at Ohio State has more than translated to the NFL this season. Most importantly, he is taking care of the football with zero interceptions and one lost fumble.”
Perhaps one of the reasons why the Texans are off to a fast start is because in July, Stroud hosted a three-day minicamp for the quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends at UCLA to work on their timing and to get familiar with one another.
Stroud, is from Rancho Cucamonga, which is 42 miles east of Los Angeles, was a late bloomer who had a difficult family life, which included his father going to prison. He also was in the shadow of other California prospects in Bryce Young and D.J. Uigalalei.
He was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist at Ohio State and passed for 85 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in two seasons.
Stroud was spectacular against Georgia. He completed 23 of 34 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the 42-41 thriller.
Stroud is backed by Davis Mills, who played at Greater Atlanta Christian and Stanford.
Right after taking Stroud, the Texans selected defensive end Will Anderson with the third overall pick.
Anderson, a former AJC Super 11 player from Dutchtown High and Alabama, also is off to a strong start. He has 15 tackles, a sack, five quarterback hits and a tackle for loss.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who is from Covington and played at Eastside High, and defensive end Jonathan Greenard, who played at Hiram, both start for the Texans. Rankins, who was drafted 12th overall by the Saints in 2016, is in his eighth season in the NFL.
Also, former Georgia Tech standout Shaq Mason starts at right guard for the Texans.
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.