The Texans’ improved upon their best start in franchise history Monday night, remaining undefeated by holding off a pesky, desperate Jets club that left no tricks in its bag. However, the focus today is on the potential season-ending injury to ILB Brian Cushing, who left Monday’s contest early in the first half after being hit low on a seemingly illegal chop block from Jets OG Matt Slauson.
Where do the Texans go from here if Cushing’s season is, in fact, done?
This is a squad that obviously knows a thing or two about adversity. Remember, Houston lost its most gifted defender a season ago, Mario Williams, in Week Five in 2011. It was already without WR Andre Johnson and would soon find itself without Matt Schaub. Of course, all head coach Gary Kubiak’s troops did to respond was win their first division title and postseason game in franchise history — with a rookie third-stringer, T.J. Yates, at the controls.
So why do Texans fans feel like the world came crashing down following the news that Cushing was on crutches after the game, with an ominous health outlook for the rest of the season?
Because in losing Cushing, the Texans don’t just lose a defensive captain and reigning team MVP. They lose one of the emotional leaders in the middle of their defense, a player who was all over the field this season, on the heels of his best season as a pro in 2011. They lose a player who goes 110 miles per hour on every single play. That last part is critical; Cushing never came off the field for the Texans. His replacement last night, Tim Dobbins, is a seventh-year journeyman with 17 career starts who doesn’t come close to matching Cushing’s sideline-to-sideline tenacity, nor his instincts or physicality (did you see the pop Cushing put on Jets WR Jeremy Kerley on 3rd-and-2 early in the first quarter right in front of the first-down marker to force a punt?)
It was easy to overlook Cushing’s strong play week in and week out because of what DLE J.J. Watt has done so far this season, taking the league by storm with one of the most dominant stretches of play we’ve seen from a defensive player in some time. But Cushing is an integral part of the Texans’ attacking, swarming stop-unit, and now defensive coordinator Wade Phillips again will have to reach into his bag of tricks in search of a solution.
To be clear: there is no Brooks Reed waiting in the wings like there was when Williams went down a season ago. Dobbins and veteran Bradie James are likely to share the burden of replacing Cushing, with special-teams ace Mister Alexander perhaps also getting worked into the mix. James stayed on the field in Houston’s sub packages once Cushing left, but any league observer will tell you that, at this stage of his career, the former Cowboy is not the guy you want covering tight ends and runners coming out of the backfield.
The Texans are a deep, talented football team, but inside linebacker was not considered one of their deeper positions heading into 2012, what with the trade of DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia. I don’t think this devastating injury changes the thinking on Ryans; he’s still not an every-down player in Phillips’ scheme.
The Texans don’t have time to wallow, as a still-dangerous and hungry Packers club visits Houston Sunday night. But Kubiak and Phillips found a way to keep the team marching full speed ahead amid massive adversity last season, and now that the the first major shoe has apparently dropped in ’12, they will have to do so again. With a three-game lead in the AFC South, and no serious threat to challenge them for the division crown, this injury shouldn’t derail the Texans’ bid for a second consecutive postseason berth. Of course, just getting back to the postseason isn’t enough for a team that, prior to this injury, appeared destined for so much more.
Is the loss of Cushing the equivalency of pundits a season ago saying the Texans were no longer a Super Bowl contender without Schaub?
The good news is they still have a number of blue-chip defenders, the best assistant coach in the league and a head coach who masterfully weathered one storm after the next last season. But someone is going to have to step up in Cushing’s absence and grow up in a hurry similarly to Reed a season ago. The bad news is, unlike last season, there is no clear candidate being groomed for such a role.