Cushing moves into lead role on Texans' defense
It may be the most indelible image of the Houston Texans' 2011 season - blood pouring down the face of linebacker Brian Cushing after a scrap with Cleveland guard Shawn Lauvao in a November game against the Browns.
The 6-foot-3, 248-pound Cushing led the Texans with seven tackles and a sack that day, helping Houston to a 30-12 victory. The Texans' defense evolved into one of the NFL's best last season, the main catalyst for the franchise's first division championship and playoff berth.
Expectations are higher than ever in Houston for this season, and they are for Cushing, too, with one-time defensive cornerstones Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans now playing for other teams.
The Texans acquired veteran linebacker Bradie James, but many see Cushing as the emerging leader of the defense after three seasons as a starter. He feels groomed for the role after watching Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowler, and serving as a team captain himself last year.
''You're not going to learn from a better guy,'' Cushing said. ''It was a lot of leadership stuff I learned from him, how to be a pro, how to act and the kind of hours he put in, the dedication and how much he loved this game.''
Statistically, Cushing has set his own high standards after leading the league's second-ranked defense in tackles (114). He was also the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009 after making 133 tackles, second-most in the AFC behind Ray Lewis (134).
A first-round pick out of Southern California, Cushing turned out to be a perfect fit for new coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 alignment. Phillips called Cushing ''a holy terror'' for his knack for disrupting offensive plays.
Texans safety Danieal Manning, who played in Chicago with eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher before coming to Houston, watched Cushing play in college and then marveled at what he could do when they became teammates last season.
''I always knew about Brian, coming up from USC,'' Manning said. ''He was always a fierce competitor. And now, in developing his game, he's moving all over the field. He's just a phenomenal athlete and a great football player.''
Cushing said there's still vast room for improvement. He pores over video to find ways to get better and prides himself on putting in the extra time in the weight room.
And he hopes his habits spill over to the rest of Houston's defensive players.
''I think if people see that and see that,'' he said, ''no matter what awards or accolades you get, and you don't change and you continue to work the same way, I think that's more important than anything.''
The Texans gave up only 285.7 yards per game last season, second only to Pittsburgh (271.8 yards per game). Houston allowed 91.2 fewer yards per game than the defense did in 2010, the third-largest decrease since 1970, and the defense ranked sixth in sacks (44) and 12th in takeaways (27).
Cushing has no individual or team statistics in mind as the season approaches. The only number that matters to him is the one that lines up with those high expectations.
''We were second in the league (in defense) and this year, we want to be first,'' he said. ''We've just got to go 1-0 in every game. That's the main thing - keep our goals short-term and just be smart about it. We know we can get better and we're going to try to improve every game.''
Houston went 10-6 last season, then battered Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs. The breakthrough season ended in Baltimore the following week, and Cushing said the Texans' defense should be better, since it will have a full season, summer and training camp to absorb Phillips' defense.
Last year, Phillips had to give a crash course in his 3-4 scheme because of the lockout.
''Really, we were learning our defense as we went into camp,'' he said. ''Now, with a full year under our belt and with the OTAs going into training camp, we feel that we have a big advantage.''
And Cushing himself is as comfortable and confident as he's been as a pro, two years removed from a four-game suspension resulting from a positive test for a banned substance.
He patiently answered every awkward question upon his return in 2010, put the situation behind him and recaptured his form in 2011. As OTAs ended, his focus was once again squarely on football, just where he wants it.
''My mind is free. I'm happy,'' he said. ''I couldn't be in a better place and I'm just excited for this upcoming season, so it's a good feeling.''