On Sunday, the Houston Texans will play host to the visiting New Orleans Saints, who are 3-2 and coming off a fresh beating of the apparently hapless New England Patriots. In the middle of a contested NFC South, the Saints represent the most established roster in the division. New free agent signings such as quarterback Derek Carr and running back Jamaal Williams bring a new face to the team, but New Orleans’ real strength still lies in their defense. Filled with playmakers from the line of scrimmage to the secondary, the Saints have a betting chance of ending 2023 as the best defense in the NFL.
Although, this is something Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud has heard all too often. Three of his first five starts came against defenses ranked in the top half of the league, with the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons being squarely in the top 10 of most rankings. Stroud has spent the first month of his NFL career facing the best the league has to offer on the defensive side of the ball, and, miraculously, has excelled. When on the field, Stroud figures out a way to be an impressive playmaker, regardless of the quality of the opponent. But, it will still be rough sledding all day against New Orleans. Experience against other great defenses will help, but the New Orleans Saints’ defense will probably be the biggest challenge C.J. Stroud has faced thus far in his career.
New Orleans has excelled at both against the run and pass in 2023, ensuring that no offensive scheme may travel through the Saints defense without encountering some turbulence. On Pro Football Reference, New Orleans’ defense is currently fourth in points, fourth in yards, sixth in touchdowns, fourth in interceptions, and fourth in net yards gained per pass attempt. Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders and defensive end Cameron Jordan are leading the charge on the line, with fellow end Carl Granderson showing some real promise in the pass-rush. Behind them, linebackers Demario Davis and Pete Werner make up a fearsome twosome, with Davis seemingly even better now than he was in previous years. Is he aging like wine? This is clearly the only explanation, and with how good safety Tyrann Mathieu has been playing recently, I’m starting to wonder if the same thing is happening with him.
The Saints have been one of the league's best pass rushes when using stunts, where rookie NT Bryan Bresee has looked great and Demario Davis fills a Hightower-esque as a penetrator/looper— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 5, 2023
NO doesn't blitz often, but they do occasionally send pressure from the slot pic.twitter.com/mdgd24L07U
Mathieu pairs with lockdown cornerback Marshon Lattimore to make up the headliners of one of the stickiest coverages in the NFL. Second-year slot cornerback Alontae Taylor is also becoming a positive contributor, and their other starting safety, Marcus Maye, returns from a three-game suspension this week. Maye hasn’t been a superstar for New Orleans, but he’s already got an interception this year, adding to the seven total New Orleans has plucked from the sky already.
So, what can C.J. Stroud do? Well, as much as his ability to get the better of Lattimore and Mathieu will influence the outcome of the game, so will his ability to get Demario Davis and Pete Werner out of the play. These two linebackers have been the monkey wrench for so many offensive plays ran against New Orleans this year, clogging up plenty of mid-field routes and ruining any chances at easy yards with fantastic coverage, sound tackling, or blitzes. So far in his career, Stroud has been great at using his eyes and posture to manipulate the position of linebackers away from the passing lane, but this Sunday will be as hard as it gets. Davis is one of the best veteran coverage linebackers, and his been the heart for Saints defense since 2018. Pete Werner’s tackling and coverage skills make things even more difficult, his closing speed often playing a role. In order to succeed, Stroud and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik will need to scheme around these linebackers, and if Stroud can excel in a quick passing game as well as with accurate, anticipatory throws, he might be able to keep the linebackers away from the action.
Next, compare C.J. Stroud’s passing chart vs. the Atlanta Falcons last week and Baker Mayfield’s week 4 passing chart vs. New Orleans.
There’s not a lot of direct similarities between these two charts, but Baker’s success can give us an idea of what Slowik and Stroud may target on Sunday. Baker was most successful with quick passes within ten yards of the line-of-scrimmage, many of which fastballs going towards the sideline. Mayfield has a talent for getting the ball out quickly, and many of the targets he made outside the numbers were at Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, two fantastic wide receivers that encourage Mayfield to be even more of a gunslinger than he already is. In fact, I’d argue that this recklessness is the main ingredient to success against the Saints. Both Mayfield and Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love showed countering New Orleans defense means getting out of the pocket, playing off-script, running it themselves, and forcing targets to their best receivers. Both Baker Mayfield and Jordan Love made mistakes against the Packers defense, and…both threw interceptions. But, neither let those interceptions shake them, and both kept on launching the ball outside. Mayfield even used his scrambling ability to gain some crucial third downs, meaning that even a great NFL defense can suddenly become mediocre when caught flat-footed.
So, to put it more succinctly, C.J. Stroud should let go of the fear of an interception, and be willing to create plays off script or with his legs. He’s a passer - one of the greatest passers in the league right now - but he is also an athlete, and this may be the first game where his athleticism will be put to the test. We’ve already seen Bryce Young struggle, Anthony Richardson repeatedly get injured trying to make plays, and now, Stroud may be running around trying to avoid pressure again. Fortunately, the Texans’ mishmash offensive line has done very well in pass protection up until this point of the season, not giving up a sack since week 2 vs. Indianapolis. But, this will only last so much longer, so Stroud should be prepared to run around for a chance at victory, just like Mayfield and Love. When he does drop back to pass, Stroud should be looking for Robert Woods or John Metchie on quick out routes, while Nico Collins and Dalton Schultz can use their speed and size to open up big plays far down the middle of the field when the coverage hole is there. Stroud has been fantastic at targeting the deep-middle of the field, and even though that’s a clearly dangerous spot to be throwing the football against New Orleans, it’s still worth attempting when the time is right.
But, what do you think? What will Houston’s keys to victory be on Sunday? Will they be relying on Stroud to score all game long, or will running back Dameon Pierce have a big game against that Saints’ line? Will the passing game be less out adapting to New Orleans’ secondary and more about just surviving the pass rush? Will C.J. Stroud even have a good game? Let us know in the comments below!