BALTIMORE (AP) — Lamar Jackson remembers his first career start back in 2018. He led Baltimore to a win over the Bengals in the middle of November, but more than any specific stats and details, what stand out are the emotions he felt in that moment.
“I think we played Cincinnati my first start. I remember going into the game nervous. I had butterflies until actually my first snap,” Jackson said. “After the first snap, I think the nervousness went away, and I was just ready to go — hit the ground running.”
These weekend it is Jackson’s opponent trying to manage his excitement and anxiety when rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud starts for the Houston Texans at Baltimore on Sunday. The Texans drafted the Ohio State star at No. 2 overall this year, and he joins a team that is trying for a fresh start after going 3-13-1 last season. Houston also has a new coach in DeMeco Ryans.
The Ravens made some important moves of their own this offseason, although the biggest possible change — Jackson leaving — didn’t happen. Baltimore signed its franchise quarterback to a new five-year deal and gave him a couple significant new targets in Odell Beckham Jr. and first-round pick Zay Flowers. Still, it’s the Texans who are coming off the bigger offseason overhaul, and they can only hope it will start paying dividends soon.
Their first challenge is a trip to Baltimore, where they’ve never won in six tries.
“It feels kind of cool to be the villain and try to take over the trap — it’s kind of what we say — at least back at Ohio State,” Stroud said. “I’m excited to do that. I hear a lot of good things about this stadium. It’s loud, it’s kind of like a college atmosphere. Of course, I played at a lot of loud stadiums, but I don’t want to compare that to the NFL.”
Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald was in the same role at Michigan a couple seasons ago, when the Wolverines broke through with a victory over Stroud and Ohio State. David Ojabo, who played for that Michigan team, is now a linebacker for the Ravens.
“It’s been a lot of football between the last time he was on the opposing sideline,” Macdonald said. “He looks impressive to me. He doesn’t look like a rookie on preseason tape.”
Todd Monken, the new offensive coordinator Baltimore hired from Georgia, barely beat Ohio State in last season’s national semifinals.
“Last time I saw him, we were in a barnburner with him in the playoff,” Monken said. “He’s a tremendous player and a great young man.”
Houston not only has a high draft pick making his debut on offense Sunday, but also on defense. Defensive end Will Anderson Jr., the third overall pick, starts at defensive end.
Anderson, who was a standout at Alabama, had a great preseason and many oddsmakers have him as the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.
He can’t wait to get going this weekend.
“I’ve just been dreaming about it,” Anderson said. “Going to sleep with it on my mind, waking up with it on my mind and it’s just a dream come true.”
OFFENSIVE LINE WOES
Houston’s offensive line took a huge hit this preseason, losing four players to injuries. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil remains but will be forced to work with a whole new group. Left guard Kenyon Green and center Scott Quessenberry went down with season-ending injuries.
Rookie Juice Scruggs was going to fill in for Quessenberry but he injured a hamstring, The last blow came Wednesday when the team announced that right tackle Tytus Howard has a broken right hand that will keep him out at least four games.
The Texans added Josh Jones and Kendrick Green in trades during training camp to help make up for the injuries. Jones is expected to start at right tackle and Green will be the starting center.
“We’ve got smart guys who have picked up things really well … and (I’m) seeing those guys just continue to improve,” Ryans said. “I know it’s been a short time for those guys, but they’ve done a really good job with what they’ve been asked to do.”
Baltimore tight end Mark Andrews (quad) has been limited this week in practice, and so has Beckham (ankle). When Beckham makes his Ravens debut, it will be his first game since the Super Bowl two seasons ago, when he injured his knee while playing for the Los Angeles Rams.
A bigger concern is standout cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who is recovering from surgery on his foot and hasn’t been practicing. Defensive backs Brandon Stephens and Ronald Darby, the latter of whom was signed less than a month ago, could play crucial roles against Houston.