A familiar face stepped into the fray of a fierce divisional game between the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium on Sunday. Linebacker Brian Cushing, the former Pro Bowler and 2009 defensive rookie of the year, returned to the Texans unexpectedly after missing the last two games with a sprained medial collateral ligament.
He wasn’t Superman in a red cape, but it certainly felt like it following the daunting news that the team would be without defensive end J.J. Watt for the rest of the regular season. The theme of the week was that the Texans would fall off a cliff without Watt’s presence in the lineup, and even the struggling Titans looked to be in better shape heading into the game.
But Cushing’s return galvanized the troops and helped the defense stand its ground in a game without the three-time defensive player of the year.
Make no mistake, there is no replacing Watt’s individual production on the football field. His talent is too special to be replicated, and the team is obviously better whenever he is in the lineup. However, he isn’t the lone reason for the defense’s success. The Texans are still a good football team even when Watt isn’t on the field, and perhaps the return of Cushing can help restore hope in the locker room.
“I kind of didn’t want to believe the initial diagnosis, didn’t want to be out that long and really cut the time down big-time,” Cushing told the Houston Chronicle. “I was just really excited to be back out there playing football again. I feel good. I’m just happy to come out healthy and with the win.”
Cushing was initially projected to miss four to six weeks.
His return after only missing two games was unexpected, but it also couldn’t have come at a better time. Watt’s leadership might be the most missed aspect of his overall contributions to the team. But Cushing, along with nose tackle Vince Wilfork, should be able to step in and fill that void.
In his first game back with the team since Week 1, Cushing recorded four tackles and two blocked passes to help lead his team to a 27-20 win over the Titans and improve to 3-1 in the season.
“There’s a rhythm and a balance we have to find without J.J. in the lineup, but, if you look at what we’ve done through the first quarter, we’re 3-1. We have a big ballgame on the road against Minnesota and that’s what we’re focused on now,” Texans general manager Rick Smith said after the game. “I’m proud of our team for the way that they show resilience, toughness and smarts. I’m looking forward to continuing to watch them.”
There were some good and bad takeaways from the defense’s performance against Tennessee.
They were able to hold quarterback Marcus Mariota to 202 passing yards, no touchdowns and one interception. Not bad for a defense already ranked first in the league against the pass.
But the run defense still remains a bit of a concern. A week after New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns, the defense gave up 95 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to Titans all-purpose back DeMarco Murray. When Watt has been healthy, the Texans have been one of the better run-stuffing teams in the league. His absence leaves a huge leak that head coach Bill O’Brien will have to find a way to plug.
There will also likely be some concern over whether Cushing is completely healed from his MCL injury. Sure the Texans are happy to have him back ahead of schedule but at what cost? Watt’s insistence to push through a lingering back injury currently has him sitting on the sidelines.
One would expect the Texans to be keeping a close eye on Cushing, who already has an extensive track record with serious leg injuries. This team can’t afford to lose another impact player on the defensive front.
Cushing may not be cure for the loss of Watt, but he is one of the few players on defense capable of softening the blow.