NFL Week 4 Leveraging Tails: Bet on C.J. Stroud and the surging Texans offense

2RXBXPN Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) throws before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

• Steelers are still struggling: As we wrote about in last week's matchup column, the Steelers are ill-equipped to take advantage of poor matchups, especially this one against Houston. 

• C.J. Stroud finding his feet: It is certainly true that Stroud has struggled under pressure, as he ranks 35th among 38 qualifying signal-callers in PFF grade under pressure. However, he has been terrific from a clean pocket, producing a league-leading EPA when kept free from pressure.

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Many bettors place wagers in multiple markets — spreads, totals, teasers, props, etc. — where they generally get oriented by following a bottom-up approach: “Which spreads do I like?” or “Which totals stand out this week?”

However, the goal in this space is to follow a top-down approach. We will take a deep dive into one game a week and consider how bettors can best apply a specific theory on a team, player or trend and capitalize on it in the betting market.

Some bets will track more traditional markets, but we will more often look to maximize our upside in the multitude of different markets offered by sportsbooks.

Bet 1: QB C.J. Stroud 250+ passing yards, Houston Texans -2.5 (+450 at DraftKings)

Bet 2: QB C.J. Stroud 300+ passing yards, Houston Texans -5.5 (+2012 at FanDuel)

• In many ways, the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers are the inverse of one another. If we made a composite of offense and defense, the teams would average out to 1.5 earned drive points on both sides of the ball. 

• This is certainly a small sample, but with how much offense drives defensive performances, I’d rather buy stock in the team with the better offense — and that would be the Houston Texans

• This is certainly not dispositive and is not the sole base for the bet. It helps set the context, however, especially when considering how the market is pricing this game. 

• Courtesy of inpredictable, we can see that the market believes the Steelers are nearly four points better than the Texans, though early signs would indicate these teams have performed very similarly. And if anything, there is a slight edge with the Texans. Simply betting on the signal of how well each team has moved the ball would suggest value. 

Matchup Angle 1: The Pittsburgh Steelers can’t take advantage of the Houston Texans’ weak secondary

• As we wrote in last week's matchup column, the Steelers are ill-equipped to take advantage of poor matchups, especially this one against Houston. 

• The Seelers rank 32nd in coverage mistakes forced and 29th in tight-window throws. The combination of scheme, the lack of separators and QB Kenny Pickett’s decision-making render a large sample of Pittsburgh's passing plays unsuccessful. 

• And while many would argue that the biggest mismatch lies in the trenches — with the Steelers defensive line expected to overwhelm Houston's offensive line — the Houston pass rush has been every bit as impressive, engineering quick pressure on nearly 30% of dropbacks.

• The Steelers have made a blocking mistake on 53% of pass plays, the second-worst rate in the NFL. That and the team's inability to scheme or separate should leave Pickett without time to take advantage of the Texans' secondary.

Matchup Angle 2: We want to be early to the C.J. Stroud party

• The main narrative surrounding this matchup is that the Pittsburgh defensive line will overwhelm the Texans and be dispositive to their success.

It is certainly true that Stroud has struggled under pressure, as he ranks 35th among 38 qualifying signal-callers in PFF grade under pressure. However, he has been terrific from a clean pocket, producing a league-leading EPA when kept free from pressure.

• The rate at which Stroud has had clean pockets has increased pretty drastically each week — 14% in Week 1, 26% in Week 2 and 39% in Week 3.

• As he gets more comfortable in this offense, and as the offense works around their issues on the line, it is reasonable to expect the rates to stabilize and for the offensive line mismatch to matter less as he and the team find a workaround. 

• Despite a struggling line that has made blocking mistakes 12% less often than the Steelers, Houston has already found offensive success, which is fully baked into the price. If anything, there is room for optimism as Stroud works himself into more clean pockets, which can counteract the matchup advantage. 

• While not household names and not priced as such, Nico Collins and Tank Dell have produced in Houston so far, and if their grades are even directionally right, they leave Stroud with a quietly solid supporting cast. 

The Bottom line

We’ve seen Stroud find decent success despite a hurt and struggling offensive line, and that is all built-in. And would it be all that shocking if we’re talking about Stroud as an average to above-average QB by season's end? For Collins and Dell to end up as plus receivers?

Even if only part of this projection materializes, this game is badly mispriced. I’m happy to lay the points betting on the projection of the Texans' offense as average and that Pittsburgh's offense won’t be able to keep up, given their systemic woes on offense. 

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