HOUSTON -- Brian Cushing has always tried to be a leader for the Houston Texans.
That role is undisputed for the linebacker now that defensive stalwarts DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams are gone.
“There are a lot more eyes looking at you now and that’s fine,” Cushing said. “I learned from some of the best guys and they taught me a lot. It’s something I accept and going into this year I could say it was pushed on me, but it was also earned. So I feel good about it.”
Cushing was drafted in the first round in 2009 and piled up 133 tackles to earn the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Instead of building on the momentum gained from his terrific first season, Cushing was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances and had 76 tackles.
Last year was a bounce-back campaign for him, and he led the team with 114 tackles and had four sacks, two interceptions and forced two fumbles. His statistics far surpassed those of Ryans, a fellow linebacker who had 64 tackles, but the more veteran Ryans remained the most visible leader of the defense.
Cushing was unhappy that Ryans was traded to Philadelphia in the offseason, but realized that the departure meant the team would need even more from him.
“There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “I believe you can never stop improving physically and mentally. So I’m going to try to take it as far as I can and try to help this team win as best that I can.”
Cushing devoured the teachings of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who joined the team before last season, to help the group become one of the best in the NFL. The 285.7 yards a game the Texans allowed in 2011 were second only to Pittsburgh and their tough defense helped propel the team to its first playoff berth and win despite injuries to several key pieces of the offense.
Cushing is excited to see what the unit can accomplish in its second season under Phillips.
“We can obviously get better,” he said. “We feel that. We’re just looking forward to it. And any time you have an opportunity like this to go into a season and improve upon what you did the year before, it’s going to be fun.”
The coaching staff isn’t putting any extra pressure on Cushing this season because they know how much he expects from himself.
“He is kind of a lead by example guy, obviously he’s a fiery guy,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “But Cush is going to play hard all the time, and guys can count on him. I think he’s been a leader. I think he was last year and I think he’s probably even more so (now).”
With Ryans gone, Houston (No. 6 in the AP Pro32) added depth at inside linebacker with the addition of veteran Bradie James. James spent his entire nine-year career with the Cowboys and played for Phillips during his time there.
Cushing has moved to the weak side this season and James will play the strong side. The Texans think the move will make Cushing even more productive.
“I feel I’m playing a lot more space, I’m a lot freer in some situations,” he said. “It’s something that I like.”
James saw a major drop in his production last season with just 44 tackles to end a streak of five straight seasons with at least 100 tackles. The Texans still believe James can be a productive player and think he’ll fit in well with Cushing.
“Cushing is bigger than anybody else,” Houston linebackers coach Reggie Herring said. “He’s big, fast and can run. To be honest, you’d like two Cushings inside, one at (strong side) and one at (weak side). (But) having Bradie really gave us some glue in there where Cush could learn. (Bradie) really brings calmness and is like a coach on the field.”