2010 season in review: Linebacker


Top performers: Zac Diles (81 tackles), Brian Cushing (76 tackles, 1.5 sacks)

Newcomers: Darryl Sharpton (draft, fourth-round pick), Stanford Keglar (free agent), David Nixon (free agent), Isaiah Greenhouse (undrafted free agent)

Major injuries: DeMeco Ryans (Achilles, Week 6), Sharpton (shoulder, Week 16)

Position coach: Johnny Holland (16th NFL season, 5th with Texans)

Year in review: Linebacker was one of the Texans' strongest positions in 2009, but the group took a major hit before the 2010 season even started. Brian Cushing, the '09 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, was suspended for the first four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

The Texans managed to go 3-1 in Cushing's absence, but the defense suffered another setback in Week 6 when Ryans was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. The two-time Pro Bowler and defensive captain had started all 70 games in his career up to that point.

Cushing moved to middle linebacker after Ryans' injury, but that experiment lasted all of two games. He then returned to his natural strongside position and finished the season fourth on the team in tackles, with eight tackles for loss and 12 quarterback hits.

Sharpton, a rookie from Miami (Fla.), played his way into the starting lineup midway through the season. He notched his first-career sack in Week 14 against Baltimore and moved inside to middle linebacker in Week 16 at Denver. A shoulder injury ended his season a week early.

Special teams standout and ninth-year veteran Kevin Bentley stepped into the starting middle linebacker role when Cushing returned to the strongside. Bentley totaled 51 tackles, a pass defensed, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hits.

Diles had a career-high 81 tackles despite being hampered by various injuries. The fourth-year pro played in 15 games and started 10, including eight on the weakside.

Third-year linebacker Xavier Adibi filled in on the strongside during Cushing's suspension, starting three of the first four games. He finished the year with 19 tackles, including 14 solos and two tackles for loss.

The Texans signed Keglar, a third-year pro, after losing Ryans. He made a big play early in Week 9 vs. San Diego, tipping a punt deep in Chargers territory that quickly resulted in a Texans touchdown.

Nixon played in three games with the Texans, recording six tackles before he was released on Oct. 19. Greenhouse, an undrafted rookie from Northwestern (La.) State, played in two games and had one special teams tackle at Oakland.

Season highlight:Week 11 at New York Jets. Though it came in a loss, Bentley had a standout game with a season-high eight tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. The two turnovers both came in the fourth quarter to help spark a furious rally by the Texans that ended up falling just short.

Cushing had four tackles, including one for a loss of eight yards, and forced the fumble that Bentley recovered. Sharpton made his first-career start and had five tackles, one tackle for loss and two special teams tackles.

Season lowlight: Week 6 at Kansas City. The Texans won the game, but they lost their defensive captain for the season. Ryans, the team's all-time leading tackler, tore the Achilles tendon in his left foot in the second quarter.

Ryans was hurt during Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe's 17-yard touchdown catch with 13 seconds left in the first half. His leg gave out when he planted and tried to jump to make a play on the ball. Ryans was carted off the field to the locker room several minutes later and was on crutches after the game. It was the first major injury of his football career.

Notable number:157 – Tackles that Ryans was on pace for before his injury. He had 54 tackles in only five and a half games. Ryans' career high in tackles is 156, set in his rookie season of 2006.

Key splits:The Texans' defense struggled with Ryans in the starting lineup, but they did enough for the Texans to win. With their defensive captain, the Texans were 4-2. Without him, they were 2-8.

Cushing started 10 games at strongside linebacker and two games at middle linebacker. The results were appreciably better on the strongside, where he averaged 6.6 tackles per game compared to five per game in the middle. He also was more active pressuring the passer, with all of his 1.5 sacks and 5.5 of his six tackles for loss coming from the strongside in 2010.

Quotable:"I almost threw my remote through the TV a couple of times, but I kind of restrained from doing that. It's been tough because you look at about six of those games were close games and could go either way, and we didn't find a way to win those games. We've been in all of those games, but somebody didn't step up to make a play to actually win the game… To be just sitting at home and not being able to help or being able to say something to the guys, it was very difficult. You're just helpless, and it's a feeling that I would never like to have again."
- Ryans, in the Texans' locker room on Dec. 30, on having to watch as the team collapsed after a 4-2 start to the season

Looking ahead:Like the defensive line, the linebacker unit will get a facelift in 2011 as the Texans switch to a 3-4 under Wade Phillips. New linebackers coach Reggie Herring said earlier this offseason that Cushing and Ryans will likely be the two inside linebackers. Ryans would be the Mo (weakside) linebacker, while Cushing would play the Mike (strongside) position. The Texans see Cushing as a potential anchor in the run game who also can pressure and blitz from the inside.

Connor Barwin and Jesse Nading are moving from defensive end to outside linebacker. Barwin, who's coming off a season-ending ankle injury, is expected to start at one of the outside linebacker positions. The Texans will rely on him and whoever mans the other outside spot for plenty of sacks and pressure. Defensive end Mark Anderson, who'll be a free agent, also could be an option as an outside 'backer.

Sharpton is a thumper who could thrive on the inside in the 3-4. Diles has not been re-signed, meaning he'll be an unrestricted free agent later this offseason.

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