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RGIII Owns Headlines but Brian Cushing Is Biggest Return No One Is Talking About

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RGIII Owns Headlines but Brian Cushing Is Biggest Return No One Is Talking About
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

Last year, it happened to Jamaal Charles because of Adrian Peterson. This year, it happened to Brian Cushing because of Robert Griffin III.

An NFL superstar's return from an ACL tear overshadowed the same return for a good yet not as publicized player. 

Robert Griffin III wasn't the only former Rookie of the Year who set foot on the field in Week 1 after tearing a knee ligament in 2012, but he received the overwhelming majority of coverage from the national media. 

Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, who won the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009, tore his ACL on October 6 of last year against the New York Jets and missed the final 10 games of the regular season and both playoff games. 

Sure, he had three more months to recover than RG3 did, and neither are the first big-name players to come back from ACL tears and subsequent offseason surgeries. But the former USC Trojan deserves more notoriety for a strong performance in his 2013 debut.

It was Cushing who lunged to intercept San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers with nine minutes and 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter, then ran it in for a touchdown to tie the game, 28-28. 

He finished the game with five total tackles and had another pass deflection, according to ESPN.

Not only did Cushing's pick-six cap Houston's remarkable 21-point comeback, it signified that the former first-round pick is ready to return to impact-player status for the Texans. 

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Houston's front office thinks so highly of Cushing that it pulled the trigger on a March 2012 trade that sent former captain and inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a fourth-round selection and a swap of third-rounders. 

Furthermore, general manager Rick Smith gave Cushing a lucrative contract extension on September 3, a six-year deal worth a total of $55.643 million with $21 million guaranteed. 

Smith's no dummy—Cushing is a disruptive inside linebacker capable of plugging the run, and he fluidly drops into coverage.

Here's a look at Cushing's Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ratings during the 2011 campaign and the games in which he appeared in 2012:

Brian Cushing's 2011 and 2012 Seasons
PFF Overall Grade Pass-Rushing Grade (Rank) Run-Stopping Grade (Rank) Coverage Grade (Rank)
+18.5 (3) +7.4 (1) +6.5 (9) +5.1 (9)
+1.8 (19) +1.0 (14) -0.7 (73) +3.1 (6)

ProFootballFocus

There aren't many inside linebackers with a more impressive all-around game than No. 56. 

Although his teammate J.J. Watt—deservedly—won the Defensive Player of the Year award last year, Houston's defense was simply not as good without Cushing. 

Here's a look at the contrast:

Texans Defense, With and Without Brian Cushing in 2012
Games Yards Allowed Per Game Points Allowed Per Game
With Cushing 5 275.6 14.6
Without Cushing 11 344.9 23.4

ProFootballReference

While it's impossible to judge how much competition level factored into those numbers, it's important to remember Chad Henne and the Jacksonville Jaguars amassed 458 yards and 37 points against the Texans without Cushing, and Matthew Stafford's Detroit Lions racked up 525 yards of offense and scored 31 points on Thanksgiving Day. 

Even if outings against Ryan Tannehill in his NFL debut and Blaine Gabbert skewed Houston's defensive statistics with Cushing, there's no doubting his importance to the Texans. 

He's fully healthy, and he isn't the guy running backs want to meet at the second level if they happen to sneak by J.J. Watt.

 

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