The Atlanta Falcons (2-2) are in the midst of a two-game losing streak after an encouraging 2-0 start to the season. Offensive issues have been the biggest culprit, with Atlanta stuck in the single digits over the past two weeks. What was once thought to be an easy game in Week 5 has become anything but, with the Houston Texans (2-2) playing good football in recent weeks behind a better-than-expected defense and the best rookie quarterback in C.J. Stroud.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Texans, so I’ve enlisted the help of Houston expert Scott Barzilla. Scott is a writer over at Battle Red Blog, SB Nation’s site covering all things Houston Texans.
I brought five questions to Scott on a variety of topics, including the Texans’ surprisingly good start, the early emergence of C.J. Stroud, and the defense playing much better football than anyone thought possible.
1) It looks like the Texans have struck gold with C.J. Stroud, who has been the best rookie quarterback by far and perhaps the best rookie starter since Joe Burrow back in 2020. It’s all the more impressive considering the state of the team around him, which was not expected to be competitive this season. How is Stroud managing to succeed where pretty much all others are struggling? Is Stroud’s level of play sustainable, or do you expect regression as the season progresses?
Scott Barzilla: A lot of credit goes to Bobby Slowik for building game plans around what Stroud and the offensive line can do. They are getting the ball out quicker and avoiding costly sacks. It’s hard for me to say whether I expect him to keep this up. He is averaging 300 yards passing a game and hasn’t thrown any picks. I don’t think that will literally continue, but I also think he shows signs of growth every week. I also think defenses will start to figure things out. Stroud’s biggest strength is ball placement. He is able to hit receivers in stride which gives them easy yards after the catch. Teams will figure out ways to shut some of those routes down. They always do. The key will be how Slowik and Stroud adjust to those adjustments. The NFL is always one big cat and mouse game.
2) The receiving corps around Stroud has stepped up in a big way, leaving the offensive line as the biggest problem on Houston’s offense. It also seems like there’s a chance the Texans may get Laremy Tunsil and possibly even Tytus Howard back this week. How have the Texans overcome their offensive line problems thus far, and how big of a boost would the return of those to players be to the offense as a whole?
SB: If you watch the tape, they really aren’t asking these lineman to do much. The Texans are 30th in the NFL in yards per carry and that is with two very good running backs in Dameon Pierce and Devin Singletary. Stroud is getting the ball out in under three seconds most of the time. The receivers are getting the ball in open spaces which allows them to gain yards after the catch. The hope is that with both tackles returning they can afford to diversify their passing game and get more down the field throws involved. Stroud has shown he can be very accurate down the field, but he hasn’t had the time yet. Right now, the temporary plan is to move Howard to left guard because George Fant has been surprisingly effective at right tackle. If Juice Scruggs also returns they will have their full complement of blockers for the first time this season.
3) It’s not just the offense that has played a lot better than expected, the Texans defense is also playing significantly better football over the past few weeks. How is Houston managing to get such good play out of a unit that many had written off as a major liability going into the season?
SB: The answer is a little of column A and a little of column B. The talent is better on defense and that is particularly true in the secondary. Jimmy Ward was a huge addition at safety and he allows Jalen Pitre to be able to make more plays in the running game and as a surprising blotter from the safety position. However, this team still does not defend the run well. Their defensive tackles are all geared for the passing game, so they have a tendency to get pushed around. Will Anderson has been very good even if the numbers don’t say so. Jonathan Greenard has been very good as well. The real key is DeNeco Ryans. Simply put, the Lovie Smith defense from the past two seasons was decent in spots, but really two decades behind the times. The Texans defense is probably a year away from true dominance, but can look really good against certain opponents this year.
4) If there’s one area the Texans defense has been less than stellar, it’s against the run: Houston is allowing 4.4 yards per carry (22nd) and 116.5 rushing yards per game (19th). Given Atlanta’s reliance on the ground game and the continued dominance of rookie Bijan Robinson, what’s your level of concern for Houston’s ability to handle Atlanta on the ground?
SB: It’s a significant concern. The biggest concern is that they have been inconsistent. There are plays where they swarm the backs behind the line of scrimmage and look like the best run defense out there. Then there are other plays where they get 10 and 15 yard chunks while breaking four or five arm tackles. The key will be swarming Robinson and having the discipline to wrap up every single time. I can’t guarantee prop bets or else i wouldn’t be working a regular nine to five job, but the over on rushing yards for Robinson feels like a good bet. I don’t know that they’ve actually stopped the run all season. They have been up big in the second halves the last two weeks and that always helps. If it’s a close game you could be looking at a season high for Robinson once it’s done.
5) The Falcons are just a 2-point home favorite against the Texans in Week 5, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. What’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
SB: I’ve been doing this feature for two years and I have never picked the Texans to win a game. However, I feel eerily confident about this one. Part of it is Atlanta coming back from London. I really think the NFL needs to reconsider how it does these international games. We’ve played four relatively mobile quarterbacks in the first four games, so facing a less athletic Desmond Ridder feels like an opportunity to make some big plays on defense. I do think the Falcons running game will keep this thing close. I will go 24-21 Texans, but it can easily go the other way. As I said with number four, Robinson on the over is a solid bet if fans are looking for a good prop bet to take.
Many thanks to Scott Barzilla for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow him on Twitter at @SBarzilla, and if you’re in the mood for a Texans perspective on things, follow Battle Red Blog at @battleredblog.
Looking for more Falcons-Texans coverage? Check out our Dirty Birds & Brews game preview show.