IN ONE of linebacker Brian Cushing's first drills after a 10-month rehab for a torn left ACL, he was so jacked to be back on the field that he head-butted a teammate to celebrate a pass breakup. "Dude's ready to get after it," says fellow linebacker Brooks Reed.
Cushing's return will supercharge a unit that underachieved last season—even taking the rash of injuries it suffered into account. In the dastardly 3--4 scheme concocted by defensive coordinator/sorcerer Wade Phillips, the outside linebackers must get to the quarterback. But outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who had 11½ sacks in 2011, had just three last season, before signing with the Eagles in March. Reed's numbers also dipped, from six sacks two years ago to 2½.
So you can't blame Reed for wanting to mix things up. He's chopped several inches off his Thor-like mane, which now reaches the top of his shoulders, rather than covering them. During the season his hair "gets a little patchy," he reports, " 'cause I got linemen ripping the s--- out of it."
NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt is part of the reason the Houston linebackers' sack total dropped to 13 last season, from 26½ in 2011. When Phillips's scheme worked, and they found an open lane to the quarterback, Watt had usually gotten there first. The second-year end racked up an extraterrestrial 20½ sacks in '12. But Reed isn't offering that as an excuse—or the fact that he basically finished the season on one leg, after suffering a serious groin injury against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.
After winning 11 of their first 12 games, the Texans lost their mojo—and three of their final four. Houston's secondary drew plenty of criticism for giving up nine passing TDs, second-worst in the league during that stretch. Certainly, an absence of QB pressure was a big part of the problem. Houston was outscored 105--69 in those four games.
"People see numbers," says Reed. "And our sack numbers were lagging. This defense is designed for us to get sacks, so that's a big emphasis this year."
Help has arrived. Barwin will be replaced by second-year man Whitney Mercilus, whose six sacks as a rookie made him one of the few bright spots in the Texans' linebacking corps. Upon arriving at Illinois in 2008, Mercilus was informed that he was needed at tight end. "I told 'em I can't stand blocking," he recalls, "so they put me on the other side of the ball." With that surname—pronounced "merciless"—the man's got to play defense.
The oft-injured Darryl Sharpton will play inside, at the position Phillips calls "Mo." Sharpton missed time in training camp with a strained groin but seems to have returned to full health. "If he can stay in one piece he can really help this team," says coach Gary Kubiak. The Texans hedged themselves against the possibility of Sharpton breaking down again by signing street free agent Joe Mays in late July. It was Mays, then playing for the Broncos, who hit Texans quarterback Matt Schaub so hard in a game last Sept. 23 that Schaub's helmet was ripped off, taking a piece of the quarterback's ear with it.
Two weeks after that, the team lost its emotional leader when Jets guard Matt Slauson chopped Cushing's left knee from behind with a "peel-back block" of the sort that has since been outlawed by the league. "I feel like I add more than just my physical presence," says Cushing. "I add a lot emotionally. I bring a lot of fire."
The fire is back. After rehabbing like a madman—the comebacks of Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles "helped me see that it could be done," he says—Cushing's left knee and leg are stronger than they were before. Forced to play "Mo" last year, he is back at his accustomed "Mike" spot. "Now, he's on the same side as J.J.," says Phillips with a grin. "That's going to give some teams a few problems, with those two together over there."
Yes, Kubiak and Phillips kept the reins on him during training camp, but that was out of caution, rather than necessity. "I'm going to slowly build my way into this camp," Cushing said on Aug. 1. "But when the time rolls around, on September 9, I will be firing on all cylinders."
Sounds like the mojo is back.
THE CASE FOR ...
Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins
Andre Johnson didn't mind that he had a shadow in training camp. Hopkins, the Clemson wideout who was drafted 27th by the Texans, spent much of the preseason observing his elder, a six-time Pro Bowler, emulating him and peppering him with questions. How did he take care of his body? What's the deal with Johnson's prepractice training room routine? "He always wants to know what everything is for," says Johnson. "He'll see me exercising and be like, 'What does that do? What does this do?' He wants to learn. That's what I love about him."
Johnson is also going to love the space Hopkins opens up for him. Hopkins has the ability to make opposing D's pay if they double-team the veteran. He's 6' 1", 207, but plays bigger, as demonstrated by his twisting, levitating, 34-yard TD catch against the Vikings in the preseason. His hands are giant (he favors red XXXL gloves). And he finds himself in an ideal situation: the No. 2 WR playing opposite a future Hall of Famer. Which isn't to say 'Dre doesn't feel the occasional need to bring the rook down a peg. After that Vikings game, Hopkins recalls, "He told me, 'It's one touchdown, don't get overexcited.' "
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
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ILB BRIAN CUSHING
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