AFC South Reporter
NFC South Reporter
The NFL world will get to see Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud, the top two picks in the 2023 draft, face off for the first time this weekend.
Young’s Panthers (0-6) will host Stroud’s Texans (3-3) Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte (1 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). The No. 1 overall pick, Young has had a rough go to start his career with reeling Carolina, the only team in the NFL without a win. It’s been the opposite for Stroud, the No. 2 pick, who has already looked like a franchise quarterback leading a Houston team that’s more competitive than anyone expected.
Why have Stroud and Young’s rookie seasons been so different to this point? What does that mean for their matchup Sunday?
FOX Sports NFC South reporter Greg Auman and AFC South reporter Ben Arthur discuss in a roundtable preview:
Auman: Ben, I have to start with this: How was C.J. Stroud able to go that long before he threw his first NFL interception? (Context: Stroud broke Dak Prescott’s record for most passes without an interception to start a career. Prescott threw 176 times before being intercepted. Stroud’s streak ended at 192 in Week 6 vs. New Orleans).
Arthur: It’s funny; the Saints didn’t even have a drive after being the first team to pick off Stroud. Texans receiver Nico Collins forced a fumble on the interception return, right tackle Tytus Howard recovered the ball and Houston turned the possession into a touchdown — a Stroud connection to tight end Dalton Schultz at the goal line.
But to answer your question, I think it’s tied to the comfort and confidence he’s playing with. Even at Ohio State, he didn’t put the ball in harm’s way. He had just a 1.4% interception rate across 830 pass attempts for the Buckeyes. That’s a mark that would rank fourth in the NFL this season among qualified quarterbacks (Stroud currently leads the NFL with a 0.5% interception rate).
Stroud has been everything the Texans could’ve hoped for and more, much sooner than anyone could have anticipated. He has arguably been a top-10 quarterback to start this season. All the things we saw him do well at Ohio State — processing quickly, elite ball placement, throwing with decisiveness and anticipation, etc. — have shown up in the NFL.
Dave Helman and Kristina Pink discuss C.J. Stroud’s emergence
But I’m curious, Greg — why has it been such a struggle for Young early in Frank Reich’s offense?
Auman: I’ve been surprised how much they’ve struggled, given the brain trust of offensive coaches brought in to work with Young, from Frank Reich to OC Thomas Brown to QBs coach Josh McCown and assistant Jim Caldwell. I think injuries to both starting guards took away a strength on the offensive line, and Young has struggled some with turnovers — four interceptions in his five games. The Panthers were 10th in the league in rushing last year, but they’re 23rd this season, which puts more pressure on Young to keep the offense moving.
Aside from Adam Thielen (509 yards, four touchdowns), Young hasn’t built much of a connection with his top targets, and the downfield passing game has disappointed. Carolina’s 5.5 yards per pass attempt is second-lowest in the NFL, with Young barely ahead of Joe Burrow for the lowest among any QBs with 200-plus yards.
Carolina has turned the playcalling over to Brown, and while he has worked closely with Reich all season, perhaps a fresh perspective there can serve as a spark for the young quarterback.
Ben, did you expect Houston’s young receivers to mesh as well as they have with Stroud? Carolina brought in more veterans like Thielen and DJ Chark and tight end Hayden Hurst, while the Texans have gotten five touchdown catches from Nico Collins and Tank Dell, and that’s without John Metchie even reaching his full potential.
Arthur: Yeah, the wide receiver play has easily been the biggest surprise early in the season for this promising Texans team. On paper, many league observers (including myself) believed Houston’s receiver room was one of the worst in the league. Trading away Brandin Cooks, who had been Houston’s No. 1 receiver from 2020-22, didn’t help the cause. It didn’t look like a cast that would give Stroud a chance for success.
Houston’s receivers have far exceeded expectations, arguably being the team’s most consistent position group this season. Texans wide receivers have 1,236 yards this season, eighth in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. Stroud and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik have been a big reason why, but the receivers deserve plenty of credit for taking advantage of playmaking opportunities.
Collins has had injury issues to start his career (he missed 10 games in his first two seasons), but he has been able to stay on the field to this point this season, showing why he was a third-round pick out of Baylor a few years ago. Entering Week 8, he’s 10th in the NFL with 547 receiving yards and leads the league with 18.9 yards per reception. Third-round pick Tank Dell, who missed the Texans’ Week 7 game with a concussion, has been one of the NFL’s best rookie receivers.
Greg, how do you envision the Panthers slowing down the Texans’ passing attack? How do you see Carolina matching up with Houston overall?
Auman: Injuries have really set Carolina’s defense back. Corner Jaycee Horn, linebacker Shaq Thompson, safety Jeremy Chinn and edge Yetur Gross-Matos are all on injured reserve and others have been sidelined as well.
But any disruption of Stroud has to begin with Brian Burns, who has four sacks but only one in the past three games. That has him tied for 23rd in the NFL in sacks, after finishing eighth with 12.5 last season. Stroud has lost two fumbles, which is a potential vulnerability, but the Panthers have zero fumble recoveries in six games, so perhaps not so much so.
If there’s an area of concern for Carolina coming off the bye, it’s the run defense, giving up 144 yards per game and ranking 31st in the league. Houston’s Dameon Pierce is averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry, but Panthers opponents are averaging 4.9 this season, and they’re 30th in red-zone defense, giving up touchdowns 75% of the time.
Ben, how good can this Texans team be? With the Titans fading and the Colts playing without Anthony Richardson, they seem to be the best challenger to the Jaguars for the AFC South title. Is that — or even wild-card contention — in play for them?
Arthur: The Texans are certainly a playoff contender. The Texans-Jaguars matchup on Nov. 26 is one to circle, with how the seasons of these teams are faring and Houston winning the first showdown in Week 3. I do believe the Jaguars are on the brink of seizing control of the AFC South — they’ve won four consecutive games, the league’s second-longest active streak — but the Texans can remain in the wild-card hunt as long as Stroud plays at a high level. They’re currently just a half-game behind the Buffalo Bills for the last wild-card spot.
How good can the Texans be? I think it depends on the run game. Pierce was supposed to be the engine of the offense, easing Stroud in as the hopeful franchise quarterback. But it’s largely been Stroud’s play that has overcome deficiencies in the run game to this point. At the start of the season, Houston had the excuse of its offensive line being banged up as the reason the run game couldn’t get going. But with the unit upfront growing healthier by the week, albeit with a couple of shuffled parts (standout right tackle Tytus Howard is playing left guard; George Fant at right tackle), the Texans must get consistency out of the ground attack. That’s what will make them more competitive when the playoff race heats up down the stretch. The Texans rank 25th with 88.8 rushing yards per game.
A positive is that Houston has rushed for more than 120 yards in two of its past three games, and as you pointed out, the Panthers struggle mightily in run defense. That’s an area for the Texans to exploit.
That brings me to my final question for you, Greg: What’s your score prediction for Texans-Panthers in Charlotte?
Auman: It would be huge for Carolina and Young to get their first win in a head-to-head showdown with Houston and Stroud. It’s their most winnable game since a matchup with the Vikings a month ago, but I still don’t see it happening. The Panthers managed to get more injured over the bye week. I’ll take Houston to win on the road and cover, 31-24.
Arthur: I’d have to agree with you, Greg. The Texans are getting healthier, too. Dell, their second-leading receiver, will be back. With Brown taking over playcalling duties for the Panthers, it’s hard to know what to expect from Carolina as well. I’ll take the Texans 27-21.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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