Texans' Stingley living up to draft hype, shines on defense

ByD.J. Bien-Aime ESPN logo
Thursday, December 7, 2023

HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans were in quarters coverage whenDenver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson'seyes locked on receiver Courtland Sutton.

Sutton ran a slant-and-go route from the slot and Texans safety Jalen Pitrebit on the slant. Sutton dashed up the seams and was open by roughly 5 yards. Wilson zipped the pass to Sutton, but cornerbackDerek Stingley Jr. closed on the space before leaping in front of the pass to secure the acrobatic interception.

The play left Stingley's teammates stunned. Linebacker Christian Harris' said his jaw dropped and said the play was something you would see on the popular NFL video game "Madden."

"I never seen anything like that," Harris told ESPN.

Stingley was the last line of defense on the play, but he managed to secure his second interception of the Week 13 matchup where the Texans (7-5) held on for the 22-17 win.

It was the type of performance (and highlight) the organization envisioned when they drafted him No. 3 overall in the 2022 draft.

"He's an impact player for our defense, and it shows each and every week," coach DeMeco Ryans said. "We talk about the ball every week, and we needed it this week. We win the turnover battle, and we won the game, and that was the difference."

But if you ask Stingley about it all, he treated it like any other play.

"I know how to catch and not hit the receiver," Stingley told ESPN. "I was confident that I was going to make a play."

Stingley did admit his performance only elevated his morale after dealing with hamstring injuries to begin his career, which caused him to miss 14 games (six this season) throughout his first two years.

"For any [defensive back] to have multiple picks in a game, it boosts the confidence a little bit," Stingley said. "But I noticed there were a lot of things I got to get better at."

Stingley continues to build on his hot stretch of play since he returned in Week 9 from his Week 3 hamstring injury. Since Week 10, the former LSU All-American is tied for the most interceptions (four) with Dallas Cowboys cornerbackDaRon Bland. He's allowed the sixth-lowest passer rating when targeted (54.9) and has a rate hawk of 50% -- which summarizes how often a defensive player gets his hands on the ball when targeted -- according to Next Gen Stats.

Ryans had a flattering scouting report on Stingley in 2022 when he was thedefensive coordinator for theSan Francisco 49ers. Once he became the coach of the Texans, he couldn't wait to incorporate him into his defensive system.

"Just watching his film from LSU, I remember watching him as a freshman and the plays that he made," Ryans told ESPN. "It sticks out because you didn't see many corners just playing man-to-man coverage with the elite balls. There's a reason why the kid was drafted in the top five picks in the draft because of his athletic ability and the things he put on tape.

"The guys he had to practice against at LSU inJa'Marr Chaseand Justin Jefferson. He's worked against the best. And the spotlight isn't too big for him. The moment isn't too big for him. He's been there. He's done that. He continues to shine."

The Texans travel to face the New York Jets (4-8), who selected cornerback Sauce Gardner at No. 4 in 2022, on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). Gardner earned All-Pro honors and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2022, but Stingley is progressing into the player the Texans hoped he would be and is tied for fourth in interceptions this season, despite missing half of the Texans' games so far. Both players have eight passes defended, though, Gardner has yet to record an interception this season.

The Texans had a plan for Stingley, knowing he still needed time to adjust to the NFL game after playing just three games in his final season as a junior after undergoing left foot surgery and playing seven of the 10 games the prior season that was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"To see Stingley show up again for the third consecutive week and getting two interceptions is big time," Ryans said.

The Texans envisioned slowly integrating Stingley into things with hopes that he could turn into a star, but they also didn't want to rush the process and felt it was unfair to compare Stingley and Gardner based on their starts to their careers as rookies. Stingley knows he'll be forever linked to Gardner, but he doesn't necessarily care for the comparisons, either.

"For Stingley and Gardner, from my scouting report coming out of the draft, you had both guys [as] top corners," Ryans said Monday. "I think any team would be happy to have either guy. When I looked at them, it's like, 'Which one would you want?' 'Whichever is the next one that's available.' So, both guys I think have really bright futures ahead of themselves. Two young players who are impact players.

"Gardner has done some great things with the Jets, and Stingley here with us -- he's made some impact plays, as well. So I think with both guys, you can't go wrong."

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