The Texans win over Cincinnati was lead by a tremendous defensive performance that has become typical of Houston’s defense in the last few years. The familiar faces of last year’s top-ranked unit once again played solid fundamental football to constrict a weapon-packed Bengals offense who have since fired their offensive coordinator.
However one familiar face did not play on Thursday. Brian Cushing would have missed this game through concussion regardless, but the 10-game suspension he received for taking Performance Enhancing Drugs ensured the team would be shorn of the veteran starter at inside linebacker for much of the 2017 season. For most teams in the league, losing a long-term defensive leader would cripple their unit and leave them scrambling for a veteran replacement.
For the Texans, it was quite the contrary, with Cushing’s suspension arguably a blessing in disguise. Cushing has been on a downward career slope, a lack of athleticism handicapping his effectiveness. Benardrick McKinney established himself as the clear better player inside in the Texans 3-4 front, and when the Texans selected Zach Cunningham in the second round of the 2017 Draft, it became clear that Cushing may not be a Texan much longer.
After Cushing suffered his concussion last week, the team brought in Cunningham as the primary option alongside McKinney. This was in addition to his early work in nickel and dime packages where his strength in coverage could be utilized. They also turned to preseason standout Dylan Cole to step in for either McKinney or Cunningham whenever necessary. The undrafted rookie Cole was a preseason star. Both he and Cunningham were solid after their introduction.
Against the Bengals, the pair continued where they had left off at the tail end of the Jaguars game, with strong showings against a halfback trio of some ability in Joe Mixon, Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, helping limit them to just 3.15 YPC. Cunningham played 43 of 64 defensive snaps (67 percent) while Cole saw the field defensively 23 times (3). The pair provided a huge boost athletically.
Cushing had been sluggish in Week One, and quite frankly for several seasons since severe injury troubles. Cole was an athletic freak with ridiculous pro-day numbers and Cunningham similarly impressed at the NFL combine, and showed what an asset that can be on a third-down tackle, closing quickly as Gio Bernard caught the football out of the backfield to corral him short of the markers.
If I were the Texans leadership, I would cut Brian Cushing. At this stage in his career, he is limited and I believe both Cole and particularly Cunningham proved they are more than adequate replacements. Bill O’Brien has spoken of the value Cushing brings as a leader, but I do not want one of my key locker room leaders to be someone who takes PEDs and does not learn from mistakes, as the fact that this is his second suspension seems to indicate.
McKinney already leads the defense on the field, and there is enough experience in the Texans locker room to compensate were they to move on from the linebacker. This is the first year where cutting the veteran makes financial sense, and I would not hesitate to pull the trigger to bring Brian Cushing’s Texans career to a close.
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