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Ravens Insider: Ravens aren’t facing the same Texans or the same C.J. Stroud they beat in Week 1


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C.J. Stroud played like a rookie — a bold, gifted one to be sure, but the Ravens invaded his personal space early and often on their way to a comfortable season-opening victory over the Houston Texans.

“I feel like the first game we played them, he would sense me or sense another rusher and get rattled, try to throw it out,” Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh recalled.

When Oweh and his teammates watched more recent film of Stroud in preparation for Saturday’s AFC divisional round matchup with the Texans, they saw someone else entirely.

“C.J.’s a whole different quarterback,” Oweh said. “I feel like we woke them up, we matured them, and he’s been balling ever since. But I feel like everyone on that team is a little different.”

“He can make any throw from any part of the field,” safety Geno Stone added. “He’s got that big arm, and he’s being smart with the ball, not putting the ball in jeopardy.”

Stroud has already put together one of the greatest rookie quarterback seasons in NFL history, and he’s only getting better if his performance in Houston’s 45-14 wild-card demolition of the Cleveland Browns is any indication.

Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, a rookie play caller himself, trusted Stroud to throw aggressively on early downs against the Browns’ top-ranked defense, and the No. 2 pick in the 2023 draft answered with a near-perfect performance, completing 16 of 21 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns with no sacks and no turnovers.

“He played better than I did in my rookie playoff game,” said Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the favorite to win NFL Most Valuable Player honors.

Steelers Texans Football
Texans wide receiver Nico Collins, left, and quarterback C.J. Stroud celebrate after they connected for a touchdown against the Steelers on Sunday.
David J. Phillip/AP
Texans wide receiver Nico Collins, left, and quarterback C.J. Stroud celebrate after they connected for a touchdown against the Steelers on Oct. 1. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The Texans averaged 3.7 yards per play in their opening loss in Baltimore but bumped that to 5.4 for the season and 8.1 in their dissection of the previously fearsome Browns defense.

“I think we’ve grown in a multitude of areas,” Stroud told the Texans’ website. “I think at that point, we weren’t really identified as who we are now, and we’ve grown in a lot of aspects.”

The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite has seemingly every former quarterback who now works as a television analyst gushing about his poise and accuracy downfield at age 22.

“The respect I have for his season — I can’t describe it enough because of what my rookie season was like,” Peyton Manning said on ESPN’s “This is Football” with Kevin Clark. “I always say, ‘Well, it’s tough being a rookie in the NFL.’ C.J. Stroud is like, ‘It doesn’t look that tough.'”

The Ravens will look to change that by conjuring the same chaos they did in the season opener, when they sacked Stroud five times, hit him six and hurried him 19 times, as charted by Pro Football Focus. The Browns, by contrast, managed just five hurries and one quarterback hit last Saturday.

Pressure makes all the difference against Stroud, who completed 69.1% of his passes and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt from a clean pocket, compared with 53.2% and 6.4 yards per attempt when the heat was on, according to PFF.

Even in that area, Ravens defenders have watched him make strides. In Houston’s Nov. 26 loss to Jacksonville, for example, Stroud completed 26 of 36 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns despite taking four sacks and seven quarterback hits.

“I would say he is just really accurate, really poised in that pocket, even when there is some pressure in there,” Oweh said. “He’s done a better job at that.”

Which helps explain why the Texans, led by Stroud and first-year coach DeMeco Ryans, have greatly exceeded expectations. The Ravens’ 25-9 win in September might have seemed like routine business against an overmatched opponent that went 3-13-1 in 2022. But even then, coach John Harbaugh warned that Houston would be heard from.

“They’re going to win a lot of football games this year,” he said the day after, “Mark it down. You’ll see. That’s a good, young football team.”

Harbaugh nodded back to those remarks Wednesday. Any coach of a 9 1/2-point favorite, which the top-seeded Ravens are, would likely talk up the opponent. But the Texans’ resounding win over a Cleveland team many analysts viewed as a greater threat to the Ravens eliminated any doubts about their legitimacy

“They haven’t surprised me, or they haven’t surprised us,” Harbaugh said. “They are very talented. They play very hard. They execute at a high level. C.J. is just doing a phenomenal job. [Wide receiver] Nico Collins, a Michigan guy, man, he’s a go-to guy for them. A lot of skill players, a good offensive line playing very physical, the defense is all over the field, as you’d expect. They’re just a really good football team.”

As Harbaugh suggested, Houston’s young talent base goes beyond Stroud. Edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. was the No. 3 pick in the 2023 draft out of Alabama. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. was the No. 3 pick in the 2022 draft out of LSU. Both have lived up to expectations this year, Stingley after an injury-riddled rookie year.

Just as Stroud looks more assured on offense, the Texans’ defense turned into one of the league’s stingiest against the run and broke the Browns’ spirit with a pair of pick-sixes against quarterback Joe Flacco.

“It’s the same coaches. [It’s] the same scheme that you’ve seen,” Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “They seem to be doing it better, and they’re aggressive.”

As they praised the Texans, however, the Ravens hastened to add that they’re a different, better team as well. The squandered leads of the first 10 games became footnotes as they routed the the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins to clinch home-field advantage and a first-round bye.

“I was coming off the couch,” outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney joked, referencing the fact he had signed with the Ravens less than a month before he faced the Texans, the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2014, in the opener. “As [Stroud] got better, I done got better.”

“Their offense is definitely clicking, but we wouldn’t want it any other way,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “We’re prepared for it. We’re ready to go to war regardless of who it’s against, and they’re the team that’s coming in here.”

AFC divisional round

Texans at Ravens

Saturday, 4:30 p.m.


Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 9 1/2

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