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C.J. Stroud’s interception on Thursday night was an important step in his growth

The Houston Texans took the field Thursday night for their inaugural pre-season game of the 2023 season. It was a highly anticipated contest as far as pre-season games go, since their fans got a first look at prized rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, the #2 overall pick in April’s draft. Stroud rewarded their anticipation by dropping an anvil on their hopes with an interception on just his second pass of the evening. It was part of a bumpy 2-4 performance for all of 13 passing yards. The fact the Texans beat the New England Patriots 20-9 didn’t seem to matter much. Stroud’s shaky debut, and the interception in particular, stirred immediate fears that the young quarterback might not be NFL-ready.

While the interception registered high on the overreaction scale, not much attention was paid to Stroud’s response to it. That, more than the throw itself, should be where Texans fans should turn their attention.

First, though, the pick. It was the product of a classic mistake by a young quarterback. On a 3rd-and-21 play, Stroud stared down his receiver too long and gave veteran defensive back Jalen Mills, who was the middle defender in New England’s three-deep zone, an easy read on where he was going with the football. The graphic below, from the NFL Network’s telecast of the game, shows that clearly. Stroud had his eyes locked on the out-cut happening from his receiver just shy of the 40-yard-line. Mills, aligned on the hash at the 42, was not threatened by a deep route to the post and was already coming out of his drop in anticipation of the throw:

With the distance the throw had to cover, the early break by Mills allowed him to undercut the route for an easy interception:

This was clearly the mistake of a quarterback who underestimated the ability of NFL defensive backs to diagnose, anticipate and react. Stroud threw 85 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions at Ohio State, and often operated in an offense that simply had better players than its opponents. That won’t happen much in the NFL, particularly this season in Houston, whose roster is among the league’s weakest. Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik will have to protect Stroud from making long, high-risk throws like this until Stroud’s coverage recognition skills evolve. And Stroud will have to be better at moving his eyes and protecting the football. Stroud said as much after the game, commenting that he should have checked the ball down given the coverage and the situation.

“I’ll just put that in my back pocket and learn from it,” he said.

Such is life for just about every quarterback to enter the league. You get exposed and take your lumps, especially those on bad teams like the Texans. The good quarterbacks learn from their mistakes and improve. The ones who can’t soon wash out.

It’s too early to say which direction Stroud will go, but the early signs are encouraging. Stroud didn’t sulk or blame a teammate in the aftermath. Instead, he stood before a bank of reporters and took the blame. That’s an easy thing to do in theory. In practice, for a 21-year-old under immense pressure and a glaring spotlight, not so much.

Also encouraging was the fact Stroud asked his coaches to remain in the game following his scheduled time of play. Stroud was removed after the 1st quarter like Houston had scripted. But he requested to play another series so he could redeem himself. That’s a great sign from both a mental and competitive standpoint. Stroud didn’t allow the mistake to deter him. He embraced it and sought redemption. That may sound like hyperbole considering this was a first pre-season game. But with young quarterbacks, everything gets scrutinized. Stroud’s reaction to the interception was as important as the interception itself. In that sense, he passed with flying colors.

It wasn’t the start C.J. Stroud wanted for his NFL career. But the lesson he learned may have been worth it in the long run.roud threw an interception — oh my God, he’s a bust!

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