New England Patriots linebacker Anfernee Jennings, right, reaches for Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud.
New England Patriots linebacker Anfernee Jennings, right, reaches for Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. Credit: AP Photo/Steven Senne

It’s likely Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud scripted his first NFL action a lot differently than how it played out during Thursday night’s preseason opener at New England.

Making his NFL debut while starting, the Texans’ No.2 overall pick looked overwhelmed during the 20-9 win over the Patriots while playing behind an offensive line that was missing All-Pro left tackle Laremy Tunsil and right tackle Tytus Howard. And Stroud was running and scrambling for his life during his only action of the night in the first two offensive series.

Stroud was constantly under pressure, sacked once and then threw a bad interception in the direction of rookie receiver Tank Dell to set up the Patriots’ only score of the first half – a 44-yard field goal by Nick Folk. Stroud completed 2 of 4 passes for 13 yards before he was done in the first quarter.

Things started well for Stroud who hit wide receiver Nico Collins for an eight-yard pass on the opening offensive play of the night. That play helped set up a first down, but that’s when things got rough for the rookie out of Ohio State.

Stroud was sacked from pressure up the middle on first down and then on third down, he was intercepted while failing to look off Dell.

“It’s about accountability. Just being accountable for myself and my mistake and learning from it,” Stroud said. “That’s honestly what’s been OTAs and camp for me.

“I’ve thrown a couple interceptions and I’ve thrown a couple touchdowns, and you don’t ever want to ride the highs or ride the lows. You want to just stay even keeled. That’s what I plan to do is just learn from everything, learn from the good and the bad.”

DeMeco Ryans, who also made his debut as the Texans head coach, surprised some this week when he named Stroud the starter over returning starter Davis Mills in his first NFL action against Bill Belichick’s defense.

“I thought it was good for C.J. to go out and get some live reps, get some real looks. I thought he moved around well,” Ryans said. “Went to the right place with the ball a couple times, and it was good to see him move out of the pocket and try to make some things happen there. We’ve got some things to clean up, up front, and I don’t want him having to move as much, but we all have things to clean up and get better at, but I thought it was a good first outing, good live action, and I thought it was good for him.”

Stroud and Mills have been competing for the starting job all camp with them alternating first-team reps during much of the first two weeks. Mills, who wasn’t impressive in his first two years as the Texans starter, took over for Stroud and immediately you could see the difference in experience.

Mills made plays and wasn’t rattled at all as he completed 9 of 12 passes for 99 yards while playing the remainder of the first half. He even put points on the board in the final 12 seconds of the first half when his six-yard pass dropped into the hands of Dell who turned and fell into the end zone, giving the Texans a 7-3 lead at halftime.

The expectation is the 21-year-old Stroud will be the Texans’ starter at some point this season. It’s just a matter of how long it takes him to get comfortable. Stroud has said his focus is not on starting but on learning and getting better.

But he admitted he wanted to get back out there Thursday night to improve on where he fell short.

“It’s tough. I mean, the competitor in me was like, ‘Coach, let me go back out there, let me fix my wrongdoings,’” Stroud said. “But like you said, it is just the preseason, and it’s a learning opportunity for myself, really this whole football team. It was good to kind of see the second group in there. Davis [Mills] did a great job, led them right down, and then Tank [Dell] made a couple great plays that we’ve known Tank to do.”

While most eyes were on the quarterbacks, there were quite a few other positives in the Texans’ preseason debut. And it starts with Ryan’s defense which dominated the Patriots, holding them to just a lone field goal through the first three quarters and didn’t give up a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.

Rookie linebacker Henry To’oto’o showed up big in the first half, with the fifth-round pick out of Alabama leading all tacklers with five tackles, which included three solo stops. Defensive end Will Anderson Jr., who the Texans traded up to take third overall out of Alabama, had a quarterback pressure during the first defensive series and finished with one tackle on the night.

Dell, the Texans’ third-round pick out of University of Houston, had a strong night after catching five passes for 65 yards on eight targets while showing an ability to create separation and get open during the first half.

“It was good to see Tank make some plays,” Ryans said. “We’ve seen him make a lot of plays throughout training camp, some of these same plays, so it was good to see him do the same thing here in a game. He’s going to be an explosive playmaker for us, and we look forward to him continuing to make some of those plays.”

Running back Devin Singletary, who started in place of Dameon Pierce, had a couple of nice runs during his brief action, while Mike Boone picked up 25 yards on four carries on the night.

I've been with The Defender since August 2019. I'm a long-time sportswriter who has covered everything from college sports to the Texans and Rockets during my 16 years of living in the Houston market....