Patriots vs. Texans score, takeaways: Houston takes preseason opener despite sluggish debut by C.J. Stroud
It was a forgetful debut for the No. 2 overall pick
The Houston Texans were able to enjoy the sweet taste of victory as they beat the Patriots on the road in their first exhibition of the preseason, 20-9. While DeMeco Ryans' club got the win, the Texans are still leaving with a bit of a sour taste in their mouths, specifically as it relates to their first-round quarterback C.J. Stroud.
In a low-scoring first half, the rookie's rocky debut was the main storyline. The quarterback completed the first pass of his pro career to Nico Collins, but things went downhill after that. The first-rounder's head seemed to be spinning as the Patriots pass rush applied continuous pressure on him with each dropback. Stroud then threw a telegraphed ball that was picked off by defensive back Jalen Mills. Stroud played the first two series of the day finished his day completing two of his four attempts for just 13 yards and that interception.
Once Stroud departed, the offense did have a bit of momentum under Davis Mills, particularly right before the half as Tank Dell caught a bobbling touchdown to take the lead.
With the Patriots, Bailey Zappe got the start and played the entire first half and the opening series of the second half. The second-year quarterback finished completing 12 of his 14 passes for 79 yards in what was a sluggish day for the New England offense as a whole. The biggest spark came in the fourth quarter when rookie Malik Cunningham -- who has largely been a wide receiver at training camp -- got reps at quarterback. He led the Patriots to their lone touchdown drive of the night, completing all but one of his four throws for 19 yards while rushing for 34 yards and a score.
For a deeper dive into Thursday's head-to-head, check out our takeaways below.
Why the Texans won
While Stroud may have not played his best in his debut, it was Houston's depth at quarterback that fueled the win. Mills was able to help lead the Texans to their initial scoring drive before the half and Case Keenum carried the baton in the second half. Upon getting the nod to begin the second half, Keenum led his team on an eight-play, 55-yard touchdown drive that wrapped up with a rushing touchdown by tight end Dalton Keene (a former Patriots draft pick) at the goal line. Keenum also had a nice throw to Alex Bachman on his second touchdown drive at the pylon.
Dell also had himself an impressive debut, catching five of his eight targets in the first half for a game-high 65 yards and a touchdown (which we'll highlight more down below).
Why the Patriots lost
Unlike the Texans, the Patriots held out most of their heavy-hitters on both sides of the ball, so it's admittedly tough to make definitive statements about the overall operation. That said, there's been plenty of hoopla around the team's revamped offensive -- specifically with new OC Bill O'Brien -- but the unit got off to a sluggish start in the preseason opener. However, the biggest piece of the blame pie goes to the offensive line. That backup unit didn't provide much protection for Zappe in the first half and the second-year quarterback was sacked twice over the first two quarters. On top of a lack of protection, the line didn't create many running lanes for Patriots backs as the combination of Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris combined for just 31 yards on 14 attempts (2.2 yards per attempt). That poor play upfront helped lead the Patriots to just three points through the first three quarters.
Because it's the preseason, the nitty-gritty of why a team won/lost carries a little less weight. With that in might, let's also highlight some players who saw their stock rise and fall.
Texans stock up: Tank Dell. The third-round rookie out of Houston had himself a strong debut. As we noted above, he led the game with 65 yards receiving and saw a heavy workload in the first half with a game-high eight targets. While that statistical output on its own is impressive, there were layers to how well Dell played. For instance, the receiver put Patriots cornerback Jack Jones on the ground with a cut on Stroud's interception.
Of course, the rookie also had a bobbling touchdown catch, which we'll focus on more below.
Texans stock down: C.J. Stroud. It was a forgetful debut for the No. 2 overall pick, who looked shaken by the speed of the NFL. Stroud held the ball too long in certain instances and the pressure applied by New England forced him to jockey around in the pocket and it never seemed like he was able to get comfortable. His interception was arguably the most egregious as he simply telegraphed his throw by starring down his intended receiver, which Mills was able to read with ease.
Of course, it's early and Stroud has plenty of time to work out these issues before the regular season. That said, if they continue to linger, he might not start the year off as QB1.
Patriots stock up: Keion White. New England's second-round pick had been impressing throughout training camp and that play translated into his preseason debut. White was a constant in Houston's backfield and applied plenty of pressure on the quarterback. He finished with three tackles and a quarterback hit while also laying down a massive hit on Texans running back Mike Boone to help create a turnover.
Patriots stock down: Conor McDermott. It was a rough night for the offensive line as a whole, which includes McDermott. The veteran tackle struggled in both run blocking and pass protection throughout the night. Specifically, McDermott got pushed back by Jonathan Greenard that contributed to a loss of yardage by running back Kevin Harris.
Patriots stock up (honorable mention): Malik Cunningham. A quarterback controversy in Foxborough?!?! Just kidding. Still, it was an impressive showing for Cunningham, who got reps under center in the fourth quarter after spending most of training camp transitioning to wide receiver. The offense had a noticeable spark with the Louisville product under center and he was able to lead them to their lone touchdown drive of the evening with a nifty juke on a scramble inside the red zone.
While Cunningham's legs contributed to the score, arguably the best throw of the night came from him as he hit wide Tre Nixon on a perfectly thrown ball that should have been hauled in for a touchdown a few plays prior.
Cunningham might be a long-shot to make the 53-man roster, but he could prove to be a valuable scout team quarterback on the practice squad while continuing to make the transition to wide receiver if New England can sneak him through waivers later this summer.
The big swing of the game came with the first touchdown right before halftime. Mills was able to loft in a throw to Dell in the front left corner of the end zone and the rookie receiver was able to make the bobbling catch on the second attempt. Dell displayed tremendous concentration not only to secure the ball but also keep his foot inbounds to let the score count.
It was at that point when the Texans took the lead and never gave it up, scoring another touchdown on their next drive to open up the second half and go up by double digits.
Play of the game
While that Dell touchdown is a worthy candidate for this section as well, we'll give it to Tyquan Thornton, who made a diving reception on a throw from Zappe midway through the first quarter. Thornton got a step on his defender and then leaped up to make the diving catch and move the chains on third down.
This was a big moment for Thornton as the 2022 second-rounder has had a quiet training camp thus far, which has led folks to wonder if his roster spot on the opening 53-man club is in jeopardy. It's plays like this, however, that provide a glimmer of optimism.
From here, the Texans will head back to Houston and gear up for their second game of the preseason when they host the Dolphins. As for the Patriots, they'll be on the road for their final two exhibitions with their first stop landing them in Green Bay to take on the Packers.
An exclamation point for Malik Cunningham, who scrambles for the touchdown.
That was an unbelievable throw by Cunningham while rolling to his right. He hit Nixon in the hands and the WR just dropped it. Should've been a highlight touchdown.
That was scary. Cunningham had his helmet ripped off from behind by Cobi Francis. Seems to be alright, but that's the type of play that makes you hold your breath.
Cunningham has some good zip to his throws. Will be interesting to see how his transition to WR goes. I'd guess he'll be a scout quarterback on the practice squad throughout the year as well.
Malik Cunningham is in at quarterback. The Louisville product has spent most of training camp working as a wide receiver.
Keenum makes up for it on the following play. Believe it was the same offensive call just flipped to the other side and Keenum hits Bachman for the score.
Keenum didn't really set up Camp for success. Sort of fired that ball in a little to hight and hot.
The Texans have a solid quarterback room. While Stroud and Mills will duke it out for the Week 1 job (and eventually give way to Stroud), Case Keenum is a really solid veteran to have. He's seen plenty of football on various different teams/situations/roles. Good sounding board for Stroud.
Really nice job by J.J. Taylor to keep his knee above the ground. That almost certainly looked like it was going to be a safety.
Nice rebound by Diego Fagot. The linebacker was called for the penalty on the Houston punt that resulted in a first down, but was able to stick Valladay on second down to help stall out the Texans following the flag.
Trace McSorley is in at quarterback for the Patriots.
Revenge game in the preseason?!? Dalton Keene punches in the goal-line touchdown. Keene, of course, was a third round pick of the Patriots in 2020 out of Virginia Tech and spent the first two seasons of his NFL career in Foxborough before being cut last August.
The Patriots defensive backs bit on the play action, which led to Hutchinson getting wide-open. Keenum threw the ball behind him. Had he hit him in stride, he likely would've found the end zone.
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