Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
There is a medical condition known as Cushing's syndrome, caused by abnormal levels of the hormone cortisol. For followers of the Houston Texans, their version of Cushing’s syndrome is marked by abnormal levels of enthusiasm caused by the return of their favorite inside linebacker.
Those who exhibit the latter are convinced that his absence from the lineup is the primary reason for the collapse of the Texans’ defense last season. His loss did significantly impact the defense, just not to the extent that everyone believes.
Obviously, Cushing is an outstanding player at his position. Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus rated his work in 2011 as one of the top 20 seasons for an inside linebacker in the five years that the site has been ranking players using their proprietary formulas.
When he is on his game, Cushing has as good of a combination of overall skills as any inside linebacker in the league. His ability to rush the passer is a cut above that of NaVorro Bowman and Derrick Johnson, and it is in the ballpark of All-World linebacker Patrick Willis.
But he is one player among 11, and the breakdown of the Texans defense last season resulted from a combination of factors. The biggest overall problem for the unit was pass defense, an area where an inside linebacker is not a big contributor. So it was the lack of a varied pass rush, poor safety play and a pair of injuries to Johnathan Joseph that actually spelled doom for the Bulls on Parade.
The majority of their sacks (27.5 out of 44) came from just two players: J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith. The Texans were already ranked 19th in opponents yards per pass completion after Week 5 last year, the game where Cushing went down. By season’s end, they ranked 25th, having been shredded by great quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady along with mediocre ones such as Chad Henne and Matthew Stafford.
The loss of Cushing was reflected in the run defense, particularly late in the season. Houston gave up over 100 yards rushing in four of the last six games, all of them defeats. By that point, the team was relying on Barrett Ruud and Bradie James, who were both past their prime, to fill the gap left by their defensive captain.
The return of a Pro Bowl quality talent like Cushing would bolster any team. For the Houston Texans, his leadership is just as critical as his spine-rattling tackles. A full 16-game season like the one he had in 2011 will be essential for this team to finally break through to the AFC Championship Game.