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The Cushing Conundrum

I think we can all agree that a lot of electrons have been spent discussing the qualities of our defensive linemen and outside linebackers.  Let's be honest here: outside of Shaun Cody, we have the makings of a stellar set of players in these positions.  I'm not going to go on about them because I think we've all seen them in action and discussed them enough, although I reserve the right to make the occasional comment about them anyway.

What I'm going to do is pivot off of MDC's post about Cody and look at someone who will be a big piece of the puzzle, none other than Mr. BRAIN CRUSHING.  As noted before, one of the main areas to attack a Wade Phillips defense is the zone behind the NT.  Considering that our starting NT as of right now is Shaun Cody, our ILBs are going to have to work very hard to make sure that the opposing team doesn't gash us to death with draws, screens and plain old power runs up the middle.  

This puts a lot of responsibility in the hands of DeMeco Ryans, Xavier Adibi, Darryl Sharpton and Brian Cushing.  There are question marks surrounding all of these guys.  Can Ryans return to his pre-injury form?  Can Sharpton improve upon his solid rookie season?  Can Adibi play at something higher than a DIII level?  

To answer some questions about Cushing, I decided to review every play he made in the Niners game and see if I could project how he would play in the upcoming season.  I figured that since the third preseason game is the one that most closely resembles a regular season game, I was most likely to see Cushing play the way he would against Indy on September 11.  

The results, after you guys make like Sebastien Foucan and jump with me. (But first, seriously, click on that link.  It's sick.)

The first thing I noticed was that, because of the Texans' complete dominance, there weren't really enough plays to go by to judge how well Cushing played.  Because of that, I decided to expand my analysis to the New Orleans game.  If you buy what the coaching staff has said about Cushing, you would figure that Cushing's play against the Saints wouldn't be quite as good as it was against the Niners because Cushing is still regaining his confidence as a result of the injury he suffered last year.  It's a good story, but does it hold up?  I couldn't really say, because Cushing and the rest of the defense played so little against the Niners that any answer to that would be mostly wild ass guesses.

First, a couple of general things I noticed.  First, Cushing alternates between LILB and RILB depending on the situation.  I'm not sure what triggers the position shift, but unlike the outside linebackers who move around on the line after the offense lines up, the linebackers generally don't switch positions; where they line up is set before the offense has aligned itself.  Secondly, Cushing spent a whole lot of time playing a fairly flat zone underneath or covering a back out of the backfield and rarely blitzed.

I'm not going to go play-by-play because I want to give a bigger picture view, but I will mention a few specific plays.  I'm also going to mix the two opposing teams together an go back and forth between them, because between the two games, Cushing played about three quarters of football.  Let's start with the play that MDC pointed out in his piece on Cody.  

...Shaun Cody gets hit by the LG and C, and blocked harmlessly out of the play.  At the same time, the lead-blocking FB hits Cushing, preventing Cushing from getting penetration at all.  Sharpton Adibi (who I misidentified as Sharpton) shooting toward the same gap that Cushing was trying to fill, gets caught up in the wash and can't get there.  Pierre Thomas, following his lead block, has no problem getting to the second and third level, and he gains 13 yards before being brought down byKareem Jackson.

Third, Adibi took a terrible angle on his blitz and let himself get blocked out of the play rather than maintaining assignment discipline.  I chalk that up to being overly excited on the first play of the game, so it's much, much less of a worry in my book.


...Cushing has got to fight through lead blocks more effectively.  He almost seemed surprised to get popped by the FB on this play --- the hit stood Cushing up and the play just went right by him.  At the same time, this is related to the Cody problem; when he gets blocked out of the play from the snap, the hole through A-gap is so wide, it could be a Kardashian.  On top of which, if the NT were getting penetration, the timing of the play and the efficacy of the lead block would be altered.

I think MDC is pretty accurate here, but of the three things that went wrong on this play, Cushing's is in my opinion the third-worst.  Cushing held his blocker up (you could hear the collision on the commentary) but because Cody got pushed out of the play with ease and Adibi ended up going to the wrong place, the play went for big yards.  If Adibi gets to the right gap, the play goes for a few yards, probably less than five.  If Cody manages to draw a double team or at least hold the point of attack, Cushing gets to the gap earlier and it isn't, as MDC put it, Kardashian-sized.  Nonetheless, I can't help but get the feeling that the Cushing of 2009 sheds that block like bfd sheds eczema flakes and gets a hold of the ballcarrier.  So mark one down in the "not so good" column.

However, I only noticed one other play where Cushing had a problem with a blocker, and unfortunately, he got pancaked very bad.  Embarrassingly bad.  Every other time he had to take a blocker on, Cushing either held the blocker up at the point of attack, closing a running lane, or shed the blocker and made a tackle.  As I said above, though, I think the Cushing of 2009 sheds a few more of those blocks.  I don't think he's been bad at taking on blockers by any means, but I do think he could improve.

Coverage...I give Cushing an incomplete here because I don't recall quarterbacks ever targeting him.  This is curious because it would seem that he would be targeted at least occasionally, considering he's not known to be great in coverage, but for some reason, QBs never really looked his way.  It could be that the presence of J.J. Watt in the interior and the pass rush kept QBslooking outside, or it could be that the presence of Kareem Jackson did the same thing.  Can't say I'm too sure, but when someone came through Cushing's zone, he generally stuck with them pretty well.

Pursuit and tackling...I must say I was impressed with Cushing's pursuit.  One play stands out, against the Niners.  The Niners ran a stretch zone right and Adibi was playing RILB with Cushing at LILB - this was a few plays before Mario hurdled the running back and Barwin got flagged with a completely ludicrous roughing call.  The play moved to the defense's left and Cushing and Adibi both drifted with the play.  The San Francisco running back cut back across the field through a gap left because Mario gave up outside contain.  Cushing and Adibi got caught wrong-footed going to the other side of the field.  Even though the play went to Adibi's side of the field, Cushing closed down the running back and got there in time to make the tackle, beating out Adibi.  Of course, the running back dragged Cushing another 3-4 yards, which is pretty normal for Cushing (unfortunately).  But it was encouraging to see Cushing close on the ball carrier like that.

Blitzing:  Related to closing speed above, this is something that gives me real hope about Cushing this season.  We all know that Phillips hasn't called a whole lot of blitzes this preseason, and it is something of an article of faith that he will dial up a few (hopefully a lot) more in the regular season.  The few times that Cushing blitzed I thought he was impressive.  Against the Saints, he rattled Brees enough that, even though Cushing didn't get the sack, Brees missed a relatively easy throw into the flat.  Hopefully Wade will send Cushing more often, although Cushing is more versatile underneath than Adibi, who is fast but doesn't have great instincts, meaning it might be wiser to send Adibi instead.  Or both.  Whatevs.

After focusing on Cushing and the first team defense over the last two games, I would say that Cushing has been solid, but not spectacular, so far.  If you buy into the idea that he's just getting his confidence back, that he's getting used to a new system, that he has found better masking agents and that Phillips is not really showing how he's going to use Cushing, I think you could make a pretty strong case that Cushing is going to have a good season.  I would not go so far as to say that he's going to have another monster 2009-type season, but I do think it is fair to expect him to improve over last year's performance.  

A few closing thoughts: the more I watch our defense, the more amazed I am when I consider the potential our line and OLBs have.  Watt is a beast; the ankle tackle on the running back behind the line of scrimmage against the Niners was a work of art.  Smith is going to have his best season in a Texans uniform and Barwin is going to do the same.  And please, forget what Pancakes has said (and is now retracting) about Mario.  Mario is going to be just fine.  In fact, he's going to be a force of nature.

It's a good time to be a Texans fan.  And it doesn't even feel weird typing that.