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No. 2 pick C.J. Stroud struggles in his preseason debut as the Texans beat the Patriots 20-9

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) tries to elude New England Patriots defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale, right, during the first half of an NFL preseason football game Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) tries to elude New England Patriots defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale, right, during the first half of an NFL preseason football game Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BY KYLE HIGHTOWER contributing

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — C.J. Stroud wouldn’t change much about stepping on the field for the first time against an NFL opponent.

Except for one play.

Stroud had a short and at times shaky debut that included an interception, Davis Mills threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to rookie Tank Dell and the Houston Texans beat the New England Patriots 20-9 in the teams’ preseason opener Thursday night.

Stroud, drafted second overall out of Ohio State, played the first two series and went 2 of 4 for 13 yards. He rushed twice for 6 yards and was sacked once.

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New England Patriots linebacker Anfernee Jennings, right, reaches for Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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“I’m critical of myself,” Stroud said. “But that is what being a quarterback and a rookie quarterback is. I hold myself to a different standard and I know that the guys in the locker room aren’t going to hold me down for this. … One mistake on national television blows it all up. But, it’s cool, I’II just keep growing.”

Mills — who started 15 games last season — took over for Stroud and finished 9 of 12 for 99 yards while playing the balance of the opening half. His touchdown pass capped a seven-play, 62-yard drive that ended with Dell juggling and pulling in the score from his back.

Dalton Keene added a 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Case Keenum had a 5-yard TD pass to Alex Bachman in the fourth. Dell ended his night with five catches for 65 yards.

The Patriots gave most of their projected starters the night off, including quarterback Mac Jones.

Backup Bailey Zappe started in his place and went 12 of 14 for 79 yards, playing the entire first half and one series in the third quarter. His best throw of the night was a 27-yard dart to Tyquan Thornton.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said coming in with several offensive linemen dealing with injuries contributed to the offense being unable to finish some drives.

“It’s tough for the backs. It’s tough for the quarterback,” Belichick said. “We didn’t have a lot of space on the offense for the most part tonight.”

Rookie quarterback Malik Cunningham, who went undrafted out of Louisville, added a late 9-yard touchdown run. Patriots rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez had three tackles and forced a fumble.

Stroud is vying with Mills to be Houston’s starter. The Texans have mostly split first-team snaps between the two during training camp.

Mills, despite a record of just 5-29-1 as a starter the past two seasons, looked much more comfortable Thursday. Meanwhile, Stroud spent most of his limited snaps under nearly constant pressure from the Patriots defense.

Starting on his own 25 following a game-opening touchback, Stroud came out throwing and completed an 8-yard pass to Nico Collins on the Texans’ first play from scrimmage.

After a few short runs by Devin Singletary gave Houston a new set of downs, Stroud was dropped for a 15-yard sack when he was unable to avoid the grasp of Daniel Ekuale.

Stroud was flushed out of the pocket and scrambled for 4 yards on the next play. Facing third-and-21, he dropped back to pass again, throwing in the direction of Dell. But Jalen Mills read the play from the start, stepped in front and picked it off.

The Patriots took over on Houston’s 24. but wound up settling for a 44-yard Nick Folk field goal after their first drive of the night was stalled by Denzel Perryman’s sack after three plays.

Stroud’s second series was mostly a replica of his first.

He misfired on a throw to open the series, completed a short pass to Steven Sims and then had another short scramble before Houston was forced to punt again.

“I want to be perfect, but that is what this camp and preseason is for, just to make mistakes,” Stroud said. “So when it comes to regular season, I don’t make those anymore.”

ROOKIE WATCH

Gonzalez, the Patriots’ first-round pick, got a fast welcome to the NFL. He was setting up to tackle Collins after his reception on the first play from scrimmage. But Collins lowered his shoulder and sent Gonzalez stumbling backward.

Defensive lineman Keion White, New England’s second-round pick, was all over the field tallying three tackles and a quarterback hit.

Texans linebacker Will Anderson, the No. 3 overall pick out of Alabama, had a tackle in his first preseason game.

INJURIES

Texans: FB Andrew Beck limped off the field with an apparent leg injury following the opening kickoff of the second half.

Patriots: DL Carl Davis walked off under his own power following a collision in the second quarter. … OL Kody Russey was shaken up early in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Texans: Host Miami for joint practices on Aug. 16 and 17 before their preseason matchup Aug. 19.

Patriots: Travel to Green Bay for joint practices on Aug. 16 and 17 before their Aug. 19 preseason game.

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