Emin Avakian

Brian Cushing Is The X-Factor For Houston's Defense

Created on Jul. 13, 2014 5:00 AM EST

While J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are preparing to anchor a sure-to-be formidable defense, their comrade is in the latter stages of returning from a devastating injury.

Good news for Watt, Clowney and the rest of the Houston defense -- as well as the entire organization -- came recently, when LB Brian Cushing told reporters that he is confident he will return for the season opener against the Washington No Names.

"I know I'll be ready," Cushing told the Texans official website this week. "I know when it's go-time, and I need to ramp it up and get on the field, I'll be there."

The Texans faithful remembers that Cushing, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year, played a shortened 2013 season before breaking his fibula and tearing his LCL last October. He also missed 11 games in 2012 due to a torn ACL. The 2009 first round pick out of USC has appeared in a total of 12 games the previous two seasons after playing all 16 in two of his first three.

So, when Cushing says he'll be ready, it comes with a collective sigh of relief, but it also raises questions if he can continue being ready and healthy throughout the upcoming season. Because, needless to say, tearing your ACL, LCL and breaking your fibula the last two Octobers is cause for concern.

If the 27-year-old linebacker is able to put the injuries behind him and stay on the field, then opposing teams are in for a game of pick your poison. Cushing compiled 133 tackles, while snatching four interceptions in his rookie season and 114 tackles in the 2011 season, for which he was named the team's most valuable player. Solid play from the linebacker position, led by Cushing and Brooks Reed, will make the defensive line's life a lot easier. Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is in a good place.

With Clowney moving to outside linebacker, Reed has been asked to move inside. Cushing, for one, has confidence in his four-year teammate.

“Brooks is that kind of player, an extremely athletic player,” Cushing told reporters Tuesday night at a charity event. “He’s a smart kid. He’s interchangeable inside or outside. There are not many guys that can do that. It's a very different breed from outside to inside, a very different mindset but he’s one of the few that can do it. He’s proven that and I think that he’s going to be proving it even more during the season if that’s the position he stays at.”

In his first season as the Texans defensive coordinator, Crennel should feel fortunate about what he has to work with -- on paper at least. But he's also been given the task of helming a defense nicknamed "Bulls on Parade," that will be expected to not finish dead last in interceptions, 23rd in rushing yards allowed, 24th in points allowed and tied for 29th in sacks, as they did last season.

Crennel will employ a 3-4 defense, which sparks questions if it limits Watt, the team's best player, as the 3-4 asks defensive ends to be hole-pluggers and run-stuffers rather than penetrate the offensive line. Head coach Bill O'Brien put those questions to bed temporarily, as he addressed the team's defense to The Houston Chronicle: "We have talked about a lot of different things. Our defense will be multiple. People always try to maybe put your defense in a box and label it. We’re going to be a 3-4 defense. The majority of the games played in the NFL are now played in nickel defense or dime defense. Our defense will be very multiple."

Along with the aforementioned Cushing, Watt, Clowney and Reed, Houston's defense will aim to be the most feared in the NFL, with a little help from their friends -- Louis Nix III at nose tackle, defensive end opposite of Watt, Jared Crick, second OLB Whitney Mercilus, outside cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, slot cornerback Brandon Harris, SS D.J. Swearinger and FS Kendrick Lewis.

As we all know, however, "on paper" doesn't mean anything when the players take the field and are asked to live up to the hype and meet expectations. Houston's defense at the beginning of last season had many of the same faces it will have this season, including Cushing, Watt and Reed. Why it struggled under Wade Phillips' tutelage is yesterday's news, but if we're getting excited about Houston's defense, then we need to be discouraged about its offense. On the same note, O'Brien and Crennel will not only need to rely on a solid defense to keep them in games, but serve as the catalyst for victories in spite of a suspect offense.

Cushing's health, Clowney's seamless transition to the pros, Watt maintaining his status, Reed's move to the inside, the overall transition to the 3-4 and adjusting to both a new head coach and defensive coordinator. These are all question marks for a team that has a 14-game losing streak on its back -- and is looking to snap it on September 7.

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