DeMeco Ryans was excited.
The Houston Texans’ head coach knew his team had room to improve after outlasting the Arizona Cardinals, 21-16, to notch their sixth win of the season.
The uncharacteristic three interceptions that rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud threw had endangered Houston's victory.
But the 2023 Texans were never going to be perfect. That’s not what Ryan asks of his team.
“In this game, there were a lot of miscues, things that didn’t go our way,” the first-year head coach said after the game. “But what I love most, what I told our guys, is we found a way to win. And that’s what it takes to be a good football team.”
Ryans was talking about his team’s contest against the Cardinals. But he might as well have been narrating the Texans’ 2023 season.
To describe Houston’s three prior seasons as full of miscues and things that didn’t go their way would be generous. The Texans lost at least 12 games in each of three straight seasons; they became entangled in sexual harassment allegations levied toward their then-quarterback, Deshaun Watson; and they fired two coaches after one year each.
But in Ryans’ debut year, he’s begun to remind Houston what a good football team looks like. He’s assembling a group more talented and far more functional than the Texans had gotten used to. The process began in earnest back in the spring, when Ryans determined his team-building philosophy and embraced its boldness.
He can thank the Cardinals, long before Sunday, for their contributions.
Because after the Texans landed Stroud (more on him in a minute) with the second overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, they weren't satisfied. They bartered with Arizona to trade up from No. 12 overall to No. 3, the Cardinals receiving additional first-, second- and third-round picks in exchange for the nine-spot rise and a fourth-round pick.
The edge rusher whom Houston landed at No. 3, Will Anderson Jr., sealed Sunday’s win.
He’s on pace to seal several more.
For Texans, Will Anderson Jr. ‘the reason why we won the game’
Ryans returned to Houston, where he played from 2006-11, with a knack for scheming defenses. But the two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker needed the pass-rush ammunition to execute his plans.
The draft capital sacrifice to land Anderson was costly. But through 10 games, he's validating it. Anderson has produced to the tune of 13 quarterback hits, three sacks, 24 pressures and a blocked kick. And he's efficient: Anderson entered this week leading all edge rushers with a 40% run-stop win rate, per ESPN.
He ranks third among edge rushers with a 26% pass-rush win rate, trailing only NFL Defensive Player of the Year favorites in the Dallas Cowboys’ Micah Parsons and Cleveland Browns’ Myles Garrett.
Against the Cardinals, Anderson demonstrated that playmaking ability.
He patiently beat his blockers in the first quarter, when the Cardinals faced third-and-11, to sack the famously elusive Murray.
After Cardinals running back James Conner took a handoff early in the fourth quarter, Anderson not only burst off the line unblocked but also spun the back a full 720 degrees after the first rotation wasn’t sufficient to complete what was ultimately a tackle for loss.
And with the game on the line, the Cardinals facing fourth-and-8 down five with 35 seconds to play, Murray dropped back. He saw Anderson again gunning toward him without a lineman to slow him. So Murray released the pass less intentionally than he likely would have without pressure. Texans safety Steven Nelson broke up the pass intended for Hollywood Brown.
That was game.
“Will has been very impactful for our defense,” Ryans said afterward. “Will plays the game with a relentless mindset. Love the way he gets after it each and every snap. I mean you talk about effort, you talk about him disrupting the quarterback, he did a really nice job today along with our entire D-line.”
Ryans was particularly impressed with Anderson’s pursuit of Murray after coach told players they’d need to essentially “rush twice” to outlast Murray’s play-extending threat.
“Will continues to help our defense and be the reason why we can finish out games like this,” Ryans said. “We’ve had other games where the defense has struggled and the offense has stepped up and made drives to win at the end of the game.
“It was awesome to see the defense … be the reason why we won the game.”
Off day for Stroud doesn’t change how bright his future looks
Offense has carried the Texans thanks in large part to Stroud’s record-setting rookie year.
Through 10 games, Stroud leads the league with 296.2 passing yards per game and ranks eighth in efficiency with a 99.3 passer rating. Even with his turnover-laden day this week, Stroud still has thrown 17 touchdowns to five interceptions. Sunday was Stroud’s first multi-interception game as a pro, and first three-interception game in 36 college and pro outings. So don’t expect him to play more conservatively going forward.
“Man, Steph Curry don’t ever stop shooting,” Stroud said. “I don’t got no shame in my game. I definitely got to be smarter, but no confidence is taken away from me. I’m gonna keep letting it fly.”
Stroud both erred and let it fly vs. the Cardinals.
Stroud was intercepted in the second quarter when Cardinals safety Jalen Thompson dropped underneath in the middle of the end zone; and again in the red zone, with 9:42 to play in the fourth quarter, when Cardinals linebacker Kris Barnes caught a deflection off receiver Robert Woods’ hands. Stroud's last turnover came with 5:03 remaining, when Arizona cornerback Antonio Hamilton Sr. undercut Stroud's pass down the left sideline to Tank Dell.
On each turnover-gifted possession, Houston’s defense held the Cardinals scoreless.
“The defense definitely held us up when we needed them to,” Stroud said. “Great game to learn from.”
Stroud outplayed his counterpart, completing 72.9% (27 of 37) of passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns to Murray’s 60% (20 of 30) day passing for 214 yards, a touchdown and an interception in addition to 51 yards and a score rushing. Stroud’s most impressive play came when he escaped pressure on a dropback, activated scramble-drill mode, and unleashed an off-platform throw that landed perfectly in fellow rookie receiver Tank Dell’s grip for a 40-yard touchdown.
It was just another play – like the game, and the season – that hinted at the Texans’ increasing ability to win when it matters and look like the good team Ryans thinks they are becoming. And it was a play that helps speaks to how the Texans now face a chance to take first place in the AFC South if they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars next week.
They’ll enter that game coming off three straight one-score wins.
And they’ll have a chance to get still another, thanks to the draft capital they invested this year in Stroud and Anderson.
“These games toward the end of November going into December, they’re not gonna be easy,” Stroud said. “It’s all about not blinking. I really believe this team is building a callus to that.