When Mario Williams decided to take his talents to Buffalo
during the most recent offseason, the Houston Texans' defense suddenly became
the property of middle linebacker Brian Cushing. Now, the Texans are in the
market for a new owner once again, at least until the end of this season.
The All-Pro linebacker suffered what was determined as an
ACL tear in Monday night's win over the Jets and will be lost for the season.
Cushing's loss is a devastating one for a defense so reliant on his presence
across the middle, and it could have an even bigger impact on Houston's Super
Bowl dreams this season.
At 5-0 and with one of the most well-rounded offenses in the
NFL, the Texans secured the title of best team in football over the first
quarter-plus of the season. The trio of Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub
has provided a steady balance of run and pass, and continue to give opposing
Speaking of defense, Houston had already established one of
the league's most treacherous groups in 2011 but has just continued to build on
that in the early going on 2012. With
the likes of Bradie James and Johnathan Joseph providing the veteran presence
and J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed developing into a pair of dangerous pass rushers,
the Texans' defense was shaping up to be one of the best in football — the third
best as of Week 5, actually. But the X-factor in that scenario was Cushing's
ability to lead that defensive unit, something he's proved capable of since his
rookie season in 2009.
Now, with Cushing sidelined for the rest of the season, the
Texans' once-likely championship dreams suddenly seem a lot less
"super." What Houston is losing in Cushing is more than just a
tackling machine. Cushing has also generated the reputation as a better-than-capable pass rusher and a reliable defender dropping back in coverage. The
thing Houston may miss most, though, may be Cushing's direction and stewardship
of that defense.
Cushing, who was recognized as the Texans' team MVP in 2011,
has become the heart and soul of the Texans' defense and taken on the
responsibility as the team's primary signal-caller. He's a smart player with good
knowledge of offensive systems and the understanding of which adjustments to
make to put his defense in the best positions. Now, those responsibilities will
have to be split between the veteran James and some younger players like Watt,
Reed and Connor Barwin, and time will only tell if they can adequately fill
The loss of one player isn't going to
drastically alter the direction of the Texans season. They are still going to
win 11-plus games and in all likelihood finish the season with a first-round
bye in the playoffs. Foster is going to continue dominating on the ground. Watt
will keep swatting passes and sacking quarterbacks. And the Schaub-Johnson
connection will continue executing at a high level.
That's what those guys do, and that's not going to change
much. But the question now becomes, without Cushing can the Texans maintain
their elite defense and continue with their torrid start to the season?
Houston's perseverance in the face of injuries to Williams
and Schaub in 2011 showed the type of resiliency this team possesses. But
navigating through a team-altering injury two seasons in a row might just be
too much to ask a still developing bunch.
Texans' upcoming run against Green Bay and Baltimore will surely challenge their
will, and calculate whether this team is for real or merely hoping to bend but
not break. If they can overcome those roadblocks still intact heading into the
bye week, then maybe just maybe these Texans can survive without Cushing the
rest of the way. Still, that's a big "if."
Photo via Facebook/Brian-Cushing