Texans look to young LBs as injuries mount

Injuries have left the Houston Texans thin at linebacker.

With star Brian Cushing (knee) out for the season and starter

Brooks Reed out indefinitely with a groin injury, young players

Whitney Mercilus and Darryl Sharpton will be counted on to keep the

defense rolling as the Texans (10-1) play for postseason

positioning.

”How far we go, how well we play, how we hang on here and keep

working has a lot to do with how they play,” coach Gary Kubiak

said. ”We have confidence in them.”

Adding to the trouble, inside linebacker Bradie James, who has

started every game for Houston this season, is day to day with a

hamstring injury.

”That’s the way this game is,” said James, a 10-year veteran.

”I’ve never been around a team that had that many injuries in one

position like we’ve had this year. But we’re big boys. That’s the

NFL. Guys will step up, I’m sure.”

Sharpton missed the first nine games of the season after tearing

his right quadriceps in October 2011. He had seven tackles against

Chicago before starting against Detroit and finishing with six.

Kubiak has been impressed with Sharpton’s effort, but said he

and the other young guys have some things they need to work on this

week.

”We need to eliminate some mistakes we made last week,” Kubiak

said. ”We’re trying to really isolate those guys. Sharpton’s

getting a ton of practice.”

Tim Dobbins missed last week’s game after injuring his left

shoulder against the Bears. He is practicing again, and his return

should be a boost to the group. Dobbins has started four games in

Cushing’s old spot since he was injured Oct. 8.

The Texans have turned in two of their worst defensive

performances of the season in the past two weeks, both overtime

wins by Houston. They have allowed 983 yards and 68 points in the

past two games, after yielding just 28 points in their previous

three games combined.

The Texans will try to shore up the unit by putting rookie

first-round pick Mercilus in at starter on the weak side this week,

and moving Connor Barwin from the weak side to the strong side to

fill in for Reed.

The 6-foot-4, 254-pound Mercilus was a defensive end in a 4-3

scheme at Illinois but has moved to outside linebacker in defensive

coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 alignment. He has appeared in each

game this season, but his first start will come this week.

He has 17 tackles, has forced two fumbles and has defended one

pass this season. His teammates have seen enough of him to believe

that he will fill in just fine as a starter.

”I’m fully confident in Whitney,” Reed said. ”He works very

hard and now he’s going to get his chance to show why we drafted

him in the first round. I think it will be fun to watch to see what

he can do.”

Kubiak liked what he saw from Mercilus against the Lions and

said he is improving each week.

”Whitney did some good things in the game,” Kubiak said. ”He

has played his best football for us the past month and we need that

to continue.”

The injuries to Houston’s linebackers are also taking a toll on

the Texans’ special teams. Mercilus has played virtually every play

on special teams this season, and Sharpton and fellow linebackers

Bryan Braman and Barrett Ruud are also key contributors to the

group.

Now that Mercilus and Sharpton are moving into starting roles,

Kubiak said he’ll have to shuffle some things around to make sure

they aren’t playing too much.

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