C.J. Stroud, Texans try to keep it rolling at Falcons

Two teams heading in opposite directions will meet on Sunday when the red-hot Houston Texans visit the struggling Atlanta Falcons.

After an 0-2 start, Houston (2-2) has won two straight games behind a suddenly potent offense led by rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud. In last week’s impressive 30-6 win over Pittsburgh, Stroud passed for 306 yards and two touchdowns. He also set an NFL rookie record by not throwing an interception in his first 151 pass attempts.

Through four games, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 draft has passed for 1,212 yards and six touchdowns. Only Cam Newton (1,386 yards in 2011) has more yards than Stroud through the air in his first four games as a first-year player.

“Dude is ballin’,” Houston wideout Nico Collins said. “The work he puts in every day, you can tell. It shows up in prime time and it’s only going to get better for him.”

Collins has been Stroud’s favorite target in the passing game and leads the Texans in receptions (22), yards (428) and touchdowns (three). In last week’s blowout win over the Steelers, Collins had seven receptions for 168 yards and two TDs. He’s currently ranked fifth in the league in receiving yards.

The Texans’ rushing attack has struggled at times this season, but Dameon Pierce had his best game on the ground against the Steelers (24 carries for 81 yards). Pierce could be in line for another productive game against an Atlanta defense that’s allowing 114.5 rushing yards per game.

Houston’s defense has really come on in back-to-back wins over Jacksonville and Pittsburgh and may have success against an Atlanta offense that has scored only one touchdown in its past two games.

Last week, the Texans sacked Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett three times and picked him off once before knocking him out of the game with a knee injury.

Much of the blame for Atlanta’s struggles on offense falls on quarterback Desmond Ridder. But the second-year signal-caller hasn’t gotten any help from his offensive line, as he has been sacked 11 times over the past two games.

In a 23-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London last weekend, Ridder threw two costly first-half interceptions, one of which was returned for a score, and finished with 191 yards through the air. He was sacked four times.

If the Falcons (2-2) expect to get things turned around on offense, they will need to get off to a quicker start. The team has scored just three first-half points in its past two games.

“We’ve got to find a way to start faster,” Atlanta coach Arthur Smith said. “There’s different things we’ve looked at schematically in what you’re calling, and what you’re doing differently, so we have to get that solved so we’re not in a 10-nothing hole.”

Smith’s team will also need to get wideout Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts more involved in the passing attack.

London has 11 receptions for 126 yards and two scores on the season, while Pitts has 11 catches for 121 yards. After hauling in six passes for a team-high 95 yards in the loss to the Jaguars a week ago, tight end Jonnu Smith leads Atlanta with 179 receiving yards on 15 receptions.

Dynamic rookie tailback Bijan Robinson has been sensational as a rusher (318 rushing yards) and receiver (19 receptions for 134 yards and a score) in the Falcons’ offense, but he has yet to score a TD on the ground.

Atlanta announced Wednesday that every player participated in practice.

Defensive tackle Maliek Collins (abdomen) did not practice on Wednesday for Houston. Offensive tackle Josh Jones (hand), guard Shaq Mason (ankle), Pierce (knee) and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (knee) were limited.