How rookie QB C.J. Stroud used the Texans' defense to prepare

Riddick sees C.J. Stroud's trajectory only going up (1:18)

Louis Riddick breaks down what he expects to see from C.J. Stroud as he is named the starter for the Texans. (1:18)

HOUSTON -- The Texans' locker room was semi-vacant following Thursday's sweltering practice.

Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud sat by himself at his locker, hunched over and watching film on his iPad. Moments later, second-year safety Jalen Pitre came over to sit with the 2023 No. 2 overall pick and give him tips on what he saw.

That was until the tips turned into an eruption that echoed throughout the room -- and maybe all of NRG Park.

"Oh! He's smoked!" Pitre yelled.

The "he" is Texans wide receiver Noah Brown. The declaration sparked a jovial debate between Stroud and Pitre, centered on a play when Stroud zipped a seam route over the middle of the field to Brown, who made an acrobatic catch.

The playful disagreement was over whether the completion would have occurred in a game. Pitre claimed he slowed down to avoid injuring a teammate. Stroud believed the reception would have happened regardless because of his pinpoint accuracy. They agreed to disagree but laughed at the end.

Pitre's interaction with Stroud is a microcosm of a ritual for the Texans' defensive back group. The unit constantly shares tips with the rookie out of Ohio State to prepare him for what defensive coverage will look like in the NFL.

"I think the biggest thing we do as a group is show up every day intentionally," Pitre told ESPN. "We're not giving him a false reality of what it's going to look like in the game."

In Stroud's debut, a 25-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener, he went 28-of-44 for 242 yards.

"I’m just really appreciative of those guys, and I know that they’re going to make a lot of plays and run around," Stroud said of the group last week. "I expect great things from them just like they expect great things from us as an offense."

The Texans' defensive back room features young talent in 2022 No. 3 overall pick cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and Pitre, along with veterans led by safety Jimmie Ward, Steven Nelson and Shaquill Griffin. The veterans possess a wealth of experience as Houston has the second-oldest secondary, averaging 27.26 years of age.

"Steve, Sting, Shaquill and Jalen, really all of them and Jimmie Ward, we talk on a constant basis," Stroud said. "I like to know what they think and some things that they can give me that I can be better at."

Stroud talks to them whenever he can -- before, during and after practices -- to pick up whatever tidbit he can.

"Mainly, he’ll just ask us what coverage we’re in," Ward told ESPN. "We'll just tell him if we’re showing the opposite or disguising. All it is about is disguising. That's mainly what he wants to know."

Since OTAs, Texans coach DeMeco Ryans has attempted to create as close to a gameday environment during practice, veering away from 7-on-7 and 1-on-1 periods. It has mainly been 11-on-11 team drills so Stroud can feel the pass rush while learning to read coverages from a "muddy pocket."

"We've had our competitive periods all throughout training camp where we want to make it as tough as possible for C.J. trying to help him to get ready," Ryans told ESPN. "For myself as a defensive coordinator, knowing that you’re going against a young quarterback, 'How can you confuse them? How can you cause as much havoc for him as possible mentally?' We’re going to give him multiple looks."

The main goal is to confuse Stroud. There are moments when the defense appears to be in Cover 2 or 4. Then, when the ball is snapped, it quickly shifts to a Cover-1 "lurk coverage," according to Ryans, to make Stroud hesitate.

"We help him by showing him different looks," Griffin told ESPN. "So he understands how to un-disguise different coverages before the play actually happens."

Rookie quarterbacks tend to have issues holding on to the ball too long while trying to figure out what's going on. The confusion might cause a forced throw into coverage or a sack.

"You have to be on time with the football," Ryans said. "Especially if you have a little lurk coverage for safeties ... who [are] just playing on QB's eyes. It's taught him, 'Hey, I can't be late with football. I have to be very decisive.'"

Since 2016, first-round quarterbacks during their rookie season have thrown 34 touchdowns and 28 interceptions with a QBR of 54 when facing disguise coverages, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

In Week 1, Stroud had a QBR of 81.6 as he went 5-for-10 for 36 yards when facing disguise coverages.

Stroud has to not only be able to beat the coverages, though, he needs to beat them with precision. During an 11-on-11 practice period, Stingley was able to close on a pass and break it up.

Stingley told Stroud after the drill, "That throw needs to be a dart."

"Next series, he threw a dart right on the sideline," Stingley told ESPN. "That was like immediately. He took [the advice] and ran with it."

Another example involved Griffin. Stroud ended the day with an incompletion on an out route to fellow rookie Tank Dell as Griffin prevented a touchdown by breaking up the pass.

Moments later, Stroud found Griffin and they chatted about the play. Griffin explained how the throw "can't be behind."

"When you get to that red zone area, and you got the guys doing the flat routes, aim for that pylon," Griffin recalled. "No delays. If anything, the best thing to do is to aim for the pylon. The receiver can get it, or no one else can."

Stroud and the defense will get another chance at their first win when they host the No. 4 pick, quarterback Anthony Richardson, and the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) in Week 2.