Leading up to the regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 11, we'll be profiling each position group on the 2011 Texans. Each article will contain excerpts from the 2011 Houston Texans Yearbook, the team's official season preview magazine that is on sale now at the Go Texan Store at Reliant Stadium and online right here**.
Lineup: WLB Mario Williams (starter), ILB DeMeco Ryans (starter), ILB Brian Cushing (starter), SLB Connor Barwin (starter), SLB Brooks Reed, ILB Darryl Sharpton, ILB Tim Dobbins, WLB Bryan Braman
New additions: Reed (draft pick), Braman (undrafted rookie), Dobbins (free agent)
Departures: Zac Diles (released), Xavier Adibi (released), Jesse Nading (released), Stanford Keglar (released)
The Texans have the makings of a formidable linebacker corps with Williams, Ryans, Cushing and Barwin as their projected starting four.
All four are coming off of injuries, but Williams (sports hernia), Ryans (Achilles tendon) and Cushing (offseason knee surgery) are Pro Bowlers, and Barwin (ankle) could be one of the Texans' breakout players this season.
Williams is slated to play the Will (weak outside) position, where Wade Phillips and linebackers coach Reggie Herring used DeMarcus Ware in Dallas. The 2006 No. 1 overall pick will be rushing on almost every snap. Opposite Williams at the Sam (strong outside) spot will be Barwin. The third-year pro had 4.5 sacks as a rookie in 2009.
Barwin will be dropping into coverage more than Williams, but the former college basketball player at Cincinnati also is capable of playing the Will. Reed, a second-round pick out of Arizona who had 2.0 sacks in the preseason, will compete with Barwin at the Sam position.
Ryans and Cushing will man the inside linebacker positions. Ryans will be the Mo linebacker on the weakside. Cushing, who played outside linebacker in the 4-3, will play the Mike position on the strongside.
"Both of them ought to be battling for the leading tackler on the team and the league, and that's going to be our mentality," Herring said of Ryans and Cushing. "Then at outside, we're going to challenge the sack leaders in this league at both sides. That's what the 3-4 presents for us. That's what makes it tick, along with some sound coverage and some good anchoring inside with our down people. We feel like we've got a group of linebackers right now that gives us a chance to be very competitive."
Sharpton, a 2010 fourth-round pick from Miami, will back up Ryans but can play either inside spot. Dobbins, a sixth-year pro from Iowa State, is listed as the Week 1 backup to Cushing. Braman made the roster after joining the Texans as an undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M.
LBs coach Reggie Herring on Williams: "For the outside linebacker position, he has the arm length, the height, the athleticism, the ability to rush the passer, which is the first priority at that position. Possesses power as well; has speed to convert to power, and that's always the starting point. In this scheme, will have the opportunity to rush from the outside and be a major piece of the puzzle as far as pressuring the quarterback in early downs as well as third down. At the same time, he's an imposing physical figure as far as them trying to run to the open or weakside of our defense. Should be formidable in our run defense because of his large mass and structure. As far as dropping in coverage goes, we won't ask him to do much coverage-wise and we won't ask him to drop very often. We control when he rushes and drops, and with him being we think the premier pass rusher on our defense at this time, we will utilize him accordingly – to his strengths."
Herring on Ryans: "When you talk about the Mo position, basically you're talking about production, playmaking, an instinctive player, and that's where we see DeMeco Ryans at, as being a productive instinct, run-hit football player. Loves the game, he's smart, he's intelligent. We'll look to him to set the huddle; be one of our leaders, especially out in front of the huddle as a captain of our defense; to make all the adjustments and checks; to be a tempo setter; to be a productive guy using his instincts and his play production, his ability to get to the football, his nose for the football. That's what we look for in our Mo, as well as blitz capabilities and then the weakside coverage in the passing game. We see him as an all-around instinctive football player that we expect a lot of production out of. And the smartness comes into play as far as his knowledge of football schemes and his ability to set the defense and be a leader in that manner."
Herring on Cushing: "Boy, if there was ever a coach's dream of a Mike linebacker. Great physical presence. Big, strong, fast, got a lot of tenacity, a lot of want-to as far as how you play the game full-speed with great effort on every play. With his physical stature and his physical play by nature, he ought to dominate that box physically as far as taking on linemen or lead blockers, and then dropping in coverage to the tight end side and controlling that short zone area and controlling the run. He's a big run-hit guy, and then also has ability to blitz vertically through the line. You put him inside and you give him a chance to be even more productive than what he's been. It puts him in a position where he can make plays all over the field instead of lining up at outside on one side. As far as Mike linebackers go ability- and size-wise, he's top of the line. I mean, you normally would like 'em 6-2 on average, 250 pounds. Well, he's, 6-3, 265, and can run."
Herring on Barwin: "Untapped ability. Still consider him a rookie. Young guy in the league, a player that has a great upside. Has the height, the length, the speed off the edge, the get-off. This one right here has a lot of untapped value and great potential for growth at the outside linebacker position. Has tremendous tools to work with. Is not there yet; there will be a developmental phase that he'll have to go through at this position, but he has the ability to rush-drop and has a chance to give us the pressure we need from the other side of the football opposite of Mario Williams. Should be an impact player for us on this defense. He also has the ability to swing over to the weakside. If Mario was to get hurt or needed blows in the rotation, we would be able to rotate Connor from Sam to Will or Will to Sam. With his ability, his size, his intelligence, he's got added value because he can swing the Sam or Will."