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How the wide receiver can lead the Texans to victory over the Steelers

What will C.J. Stroud do to counter T.J. Watt?

NFL: Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars Morgan Tencza-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off of their first victory of the season vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars, conversation surrounding the Houston Texans has largely revolved around one player: quarterback C.J. Stroud.

Rightfully so. Stroud was selected 2nd overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, lofty expectations preordained by his college resume. He’s been nothing short of fantastic since the regular season has begun, justifying the high expectations with a result far more satisfying than anything the Houston Texans have been providing their fans the past three years. As a diehard Stroud defender, I’ll be the first to tell you that his performance thus far is a revelation.

But, he’s not the only one contributing in a big way to the passing offense. Houston’s wide receiving room has been a bright spot of the team since training camp. Led by third-year wide receiver Nico Collins, it is an unlikely bunch filled with players in their first year in H-Town. Veteran receiver Robert Woods is the true #1 target, absorbing 25 targets in just 3 games. Collins is the big secondary receiver who’s been showing much more promise with Stroud under center. And, lastly, rookie receiver Tank Dell has burst onto the scene as a deadly route runner seemingly engineered to receive C.J. Stroud’s beautiful touch passes. Together, these players form a three-headed monster nearly impossible to defend against, overloading opposing teams with twitchy and elusively fast athletes. Throw WR John Metchie III and TE Brevin Jordan into the mix, and you’ve got playmakers at all three levels of the field.

However, returning home from the victory in Jacksonville, the Texans will collide with a Steelers team gaining momentum. Filled with playmakers on the defensive line, leading the league in sacks at 13.0, and second place in the league with 8 turnovers (1st: Bills with 9), this is a Steelers defense not to be messed with. How will C.J. Stroud counter such a disruptive D? Who will he be looking for the most? Will he have any success, or will this be the game he throws his first NFL interception?

Fear not, dear reader, for all of your pressing questions can be answered in the exciting, enthralling, and engaging pursuit of research:

Notice anything about these three charts? It appears that there’s a serious amount of air in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defensive secondary, seeing the wealth of catches each of these players found in the middle of the field. 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Amari Cooper, and Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams torched the Steelers in their respective matchups, primarily targeting the intermediate-to-deep-middle of the field. In fact, Each of these three players have highest PFF scores of any offensive player in each of Pittsburgh’s first three games. Take a look at their stats, and it’s not hard to see why they were given such high scores: 129 yards, 90 yards, and 172 yards gained by just one player in each game. Many of these yards were gained off targets where Pittsburgh cornerback Levi Wallace or safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, the interception leaders of the team, were the closest to the ball.

Despite their menacing pass rush and swarming hands, the Steelers’ defense is pretty easy to gain yards on. Currently 30th in rushing-defense and 22nd in passing-defense, this matchup actually may be attractive to Stroud. Take a look at Nico Collins’ chart from Week 2 and Tank Dell’s chart from Week 3:

While the similarities may not be quite as obvious as the first three charts, it’s clear that Stroud likes to target the middle of the field. Regardless of if he’s in a clean pocket or under pressure, Stroud is happy to launch accurate passes from any platform all across the gridiron.

But, we all know it’s not going to be an easy, clean game. With how many turnovers this defense has, you know the Steelers are going to find plenty of opportunities to take the ball away. Minkah Fitzpatrick is an all-pro level safety, Alex Highsmith looks like he might be the next in a long line of great Steelers’ edge rushers, and to top it all off, they have one of the best defensive players of all time and brother of J.J. Watt, T.J. Watt. How can Stroud counter this?

Simply put: just keep on throwing. 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy fired the ball to Brandon Aiyuk all game long, and he rewarded his stubbornness with a near perfect game as a receiver. Browns receiver Amari Cooper became the engine of the offense after star running back Nick Chubb went down with a leg injury, and I don’t even have to tell you about Davante Adams.

Even if Stroud encounters turbulence in his first few possessions in this game, it should not deter him from continuing to throw the football. Aiyuk and Adams’ performance against the Steelers DBs are eye-opening, and he shouldn’t be afraid to give one of his pass-catchers a chance to net a new high score in yards.

What C.J. Stroud should be more worried about is navigating this vaunted Steelers’ defensive line with the offensive protection he’s been lacking since the beginning of the season. How he’ll be able to get away from the Pittsburgh defensive line has yet to be seen, but, as long as he keeps throwing the football, he should have no problem finding Nico Collins or Tank Dell.