Backing Up the Line: Texans Linebackers

Texans linebacker Brian Cushing
Texans veteran linebacker Brian Cushing

The Houston Texans run a 3-4 defensive scheme. Houston has quality defensive ends which is needed for this system. Taking pressure off the linebackers to be elite play-makers is a benefit that other teams do not have. This is important since the linebackers are not the most talented group.

The current projected starting linebackers for Houston are; Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing, Benardrick McKinney. Zach Cunningham is in consideration for a starting spot. This is due to the lack of experience of Brennan Scarlett.  With Scarlett’s lack of experience, the job will ultimately be Cunningham’s.

Mercilus is a reliable source of sacks from the outside linebacker position. Averaging seven and a half sacks per season over five seasons. The added value with Mercilus, is that he is versatile enough to line up at defensive end. Injuries to Watt and Clowney have made the having Mercilus play defensive end a necessity. As a result, Mercilus is able to display his versatility as someone who is able to line up as a lineman and play standing up as a linebacker.

Whitney Mercilus Texans linebacker
Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus. (Photo credit AP Photo/Paul Jasienski)

Cushing is a productive middle linebacker. Being on the roster since 2009, he is the most unquestioned leader of this defensive group. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, he played a combined 12 games due to injuries. There was a brief period of time where he was labeled injury prone, this is no longer the case. While not a dependable source of sacks, he is able to be a reliable source of tackles. Averaging 60.33 tackles per season, he provides enough production to continue being the starter in Houston.

McKinney was a full time starter in just his second season. Standing 6’4″ and 246 lbs, he is a big bodied linebacker who has the ability to make plays. Totaling 79 total tackles with six sacks. He has staked his claim to the other starting middle linebacker position and will be there for a long time to come. McKinney earned a second team All-Pro selection in just his second season. Being selected to this honor this early in his career shows he has a bright future ahead of him.

Cunningham was selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Cunningham displayed his tackling ability while at Vanderbilt which cemented his status as a top prospect in this past draft. Amassing an eye popping 125 total tackles while accumulating a staggering 16.5 for loss. Although he was unable to record a sack in his junior season, he will still be a productive linebacker. Due to the high quality talent around him, the pressure will not be on him to get sacks. This task will fall upon the shoulders of Watt, Clowney and Mercilus. As a result all Cunningham will have to do is make a tackle when called upon.

Zach Cunningham of the Houston Texans
Second round pick by the Houston Texans Zach Cunningham

The health of the linebackers this season is an area of great concern. This is most noteworthy due to the relative lack of experience of the other linebackers on the roster. Tony Washington has not recorded a single tackle. Max Bullough is a role player at best, with only 56 total tackles in three seasons. Brian Peters also has limited experience, only accounting for 28 tackles in two seasons. Scarlett only appeared in seven games in his rookie season and combined for 13 total tackles.

Cushing and Mercilus will be the mentors to McKinney and Cunningham. Their experience will help them along in their career and being able to make the next step forward. Potentially becoming a first team All-Pro for McKinney. While making the adjustment to the NFL game for Cunningham.

Since the depth is thin beyond the starters, the long term success for the Texans linebackers will rely on the health of Cushing and Mericilus. They will be able to guide the young players  into making smart decisions on the field and making game changing plays. Mistakes are sure to be plenty with Cunningham and possibly McKinney, what is going to make the difference between being a mistake prone player and someone who learns is the leadership of the veterans around them. The young players on the roster will learn to move on from a mistake rather than dwelling on it. Which seems like an easy thing to accomplish, but for younger players it is not.

At the end of the day, Houston needs contributions from their linebackers. But it does not need to come from one source alone. It comes from a combination of the players that are playing together to stop the opponent. They truly play as a team and are contributing as a cohesive unit and not a lone wolf alone to make a name for themselves. The ability to play together is their strength and will carry the defense to another successful season.


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