The Texans begin their 2023 campaign on Sunday at Baltimore. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at noon CT in M&T Bank Stadium.
1) Stroud's 1st start – Sunday is another first for C.J. Stroud. The rookie quarterback gets his first NFL regular season start, and he'll do so in a place where the Texans have never won. His head coach DeMeco Ryans and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik are also rookies in their own positions, and there's a chance rookie center Jarrett Patterson will be snapping Stroud the ball.
But despite having so many things—on paper—that could be perceived as working against him, Stroud is embracing the challenge.
"You dream about this for forever," Stroud said. "It's a blessing to be able to be healthy enough to have the opportunity to go out to Baltimore and play a great opponent like the Ravens. Defense is very veteran, especially up front. They're about to play hard and we're going to play hard too, so big fan of those guys on the other side and excited to line up against those guys and get to compete."
Slowik likes the way Stroud goes about getting ready on a daily basis, and is impressed by the time, effort and efficiency with which he's done it.
"He's done a fantastic job," Slowik said. "His preparation is off the charts. That's been a pretty consistent evaluation of him since he got here. He's honed in on who we're playing, what we're doing and really locked in on the game plan and our specific plays."
Ryans acknowledged the challenge awaiting Stroud and the Texans, and explained some of the tests the Ravens will present for Houston.
"They'll give you multiple looks, they want to force you to get to third down and they play really good ball on third down," Ryans said. "They know how to get off the field. Rookie quarterback, it's going to be a tough challenge for us, but it's nothing that we're backing down from or we're not up to."
2) Center of attention – The Texans offensive line on Sunday will not resemble the planned one from early in training camp. Starting right tackle Tytus Howard won't be back until Week 5, at the earliest, because of a hand injury. 2022 starting left guard Kenyon Green is on injured reserve for the entire year. Centers Scott Quessenberry and then Juice Scruggs went down to injury, too. The former's done for 2023, and the latter is on injured reserve until early October.
Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil and right guard Shaq Mason are set to go, but with three new starters around them, all eyes will be on the offensive line early and often in this one.
At center, rookie Jarrett Patterson has been listed atop the depth chart at that spot, with Kendrick Green as the backup. Stroud explained why he's confident in both.
"Two guys that want to play very well and you can feel it when we're in meetings and things like that," Stroud said. "Excited to work with those guys. Whoever they put in there, I have total trust and faith in them, but it takes time and you have to be in there to get reps and things like that."
Patterson described what the biggest challenge will be if he winds up starting.
"I think for us it's going to be communication.," Patterson said. "It's the season opener there. It's going to be a tough environment, I'm sure. We're going to need to be on the same page every play because if one guy is off--tight end fullback, O-line, receiver, whoever--we're not going have a lot of success on offense."
3) Plus from Pierce – Running back Dameon Pierce has the attention and respect of Baltimore's defense. They're well aware of what he did last year as a rookie, when he rumbled for 936 yards in just 13 games.
"Man, he's a great player," Ravens defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald said. "We say he runs angry. The first guy is going to have a hard time bringing him down, so it's going to take a group effort. That's definitely a point of emphasis this week."
Pierce thinks his success on the ground can help Stroud and the receivers get deep completions down the field.
"When we get the run game going, that's going to open them up for deep shots, explosive plays on the drive," Pierce said. "It all goes together. As long as we all play unselfish football and stay on top of our assignments, stay detailed and just stay hungry and swarm, we'll be alright."
4) Limit Lamar – Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson is operating in a new offense under coordinator Todd Monken. In two career games against Houston, the 2019 NFL MVP has completed 73 percent of his passes for a combined 426 yards and five touchdowns, and also rushed 26 times for a 133 yards.
"Everybody knows what Lamar Jackson can do," Texans linebacker Denzel Perryman said. "He can throw the deep ball. He can run. He's very elusive. He can extend plays. So we got to make him one-dimensional. We got to make the whole offense one-dimensional."
Defensive coordinator Matt Burke detailed how tricky it can be rushing against Jackson, and that even if you win your own 1-on-1 matchup, that might not always be enough to get success as a unit.
"Try to rush collectively and understand where your brother next to you is rushing and what his responsibility is and kind of how it fits in terms of keeping the pocket the way we want it to look," Burke said.
5) The Unknown – Complicating the task of limiting Lamar Jackson is the new Monken offense in which he'll operate. Monken was the offensive coordinator the last three years for the University of Georgia. In 2019 he was Cleveland's OC, and before that he spent three years as the offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers.
The Texans aren't totally sure of what they'll see from the Ravens, offensively.
"It's crazy, we've got Tampa Bay tape from  and Georgia tape and Baltimore tape and preseason tape – and that's fine – we can try to predict some of the things that we're going to see," Burke said. "But at the end of the day, we have to ready to adapt to whatever we're getting on Sunday."
But on the flip side, the Ravens don't know exactly what Ryans and company are scheming up on the defensive side of the ball in his first year. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens have been exhaustive in their search for data.
"We're turning over every stone," Harbaugh said. "You do go a little bit by coordinator history and pedigree a little bit. So, all those things factor in, but really the focus, especially in the opener, has to be on yourself and your team."