When it comes to this week's New York Giants - Houston Texans match-up, the spotlight is going to be on one man: starting strong-side linebacker Brian Cushing.
In case you haven't been paying attention, Brian Cushing has been serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing substance policy. This Sunday's game marks his return to the field. This week, any mention of the Houston Texans will likely have Cushing's return as the main angle.
The rest of the country will ask: "Will Cushing be the same player as he was before?" Texans fans know better, due to his workout videos and pre-season play, and are asking: "How will Cushing help our defense?"
Before I get into this week's key angle, I have to state that I expect Cushing to only get about 75-80% of the defensive snaps - slightly higher than the percentage that Owen Daniels received in Week One. As beastly as his workouts are, Cushing has yet to play a full 60-minute NFL game and hasn't been on the field in over a month. Competing in humid Houston, I think it would take an absolutely extraordinary effort to come in and be there on every snap. Would I be surprised if Cushing played every snap? No, he's in great shape. Do I expect him too? Absolutely not.
Limited snaps or not, what does Brian Cushing bring to the table? What should defensive coordinator Frank Bush do with Cushing when he hits the field?
Long story short, it's time to release the Kraken.
With no contact for four weeks, Cushing must feel like a caged animal. Part of me expects Cushing to be flagged early for Unnecessary Roughness or a Late Hit because he'll be so amped up for contact. However, Frank Bush would be smart to let the dog off his leash for a while. Bush should take advantage of Cushing's adrenaline and aggression and send him in early and often to set a tone. A rattled Eli is what this secondary needs to help slow down the New York passing attack.
After the initial emotional wave wears down, I expect Bush to utilize Cushing as he did last year. Before anyone complains about the Bush scheme, it did produce the only two-time Defensive Rookie of the Year in NFL history. Now, could Cushing be the spark plug this defense is missing? Absolutely. Now, I know there are some BRBers out there who think he won't have much impact on the pass defense, but we may need to look at Cushing's 2009 season for a reminder of what he can do on the field.
Along with quarterback obliterater and unicorn killer Mario Williams, Brian Cushing is arguably this defense's best player. He has great instincts, is a sure tackler, and, above all else, is a play-maker against both the run and pass.
Need to get a tackle to get off the field on 3rd down? Cushing led the team with 134 tackles last season. Force a fumble? Cushing was tied for the team lead with two. Grab an interception or make a play against the pass? Cushing had a team-best four interceptions and was second with 10 passes defensed. Rush the passer? Cushing's five sacks were second-best on the team in 2009. Bottom line: Brian Cushing is a fantastic football player who shows up in all phases of the defense.
One item that cannot be stressed enough is the pass-rusher part, whether early or in a 3rd down role. It's hard for me to not compare Cushing to Connor Barwin and Green Bay OLB Clay Matthews because all three are roughly 6'3'' and 260 pounds with speed, power, and a nose for the quarterback. Ex-USC teammate Matthews leads the NFL with seven sacks while we saw how creative Frank Bush was with Barwin in week one. After the injury, Bush has shied away from employing some of those tactics, which has slowed the pass rush at times, but he could whip them out again with Cushing in the fold. Blitzing is always going to be a gamble, but this secondary needs all the help it can get.
Don't get it twisted; I don't believe Brian Cushing's return makes for a top-five defense that should be feared by every team. However, I do believe that he's the play-maker this defense has been lacking and can provide a boost for the guys in deep steel blue. The blueprint for Frank Bush is simple: Channel the aggression early with blitzes to set the tone, then get Cushing back into the normal flow of the system. However, there should be a noticeable intent to let Cushing play the Barwin/Matthews role on some 3rd down plays. Can you imagine Cushing, Mario Williams, Antonio Smith, Amobi Okoye/Earl Mitchell, and Adewale Ogunleye rushing the passer on a 3rd down? That's a demolition crew coming hard and fast at a quarterback - especially a New York offensive line which has allowed nine sacks this season.
There's no "magic number" for Cushing to hit that will lead to a Houston win, but I do believe we'll be saying Brian Cushing's name a lot on Sunday. If that turns out to be true, I would feel confident about the defense's chances against Eli Manning and the Giants.
I'm expecting Cushing to cause some havoc out there, but what about you guys? Do you expect Cushing to play 100% of the snaps? Should Frank Bush blitz him more? Will Bush ignore this opportunity, misuse his talent, and keep it vanilla? What's Cushing's impact at the end of the day?
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