A position-by-position look at the Texans' 2011 season
Brian Cushing moved inside to Mike linebacker after playing mostly outside in a 4-3 in his first two seasons. He led the Texans' second-ranked defense with 114 tackles, 37 more than the next-closest player (Glover Quin, 77), and was voted team MVP. Cushing also had 4.0 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He was named a captain at midseason and second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.
Mario Williams started the season as the primary pass rusher in Wade Phillips' 3-4, playing outside linebacker on the weakside. After an offseason full of skepticism as to whether he could succeed in his new role, Williams had 5.0 sacks in the first five games. But his season ended in Week 5 with a torn pectoral muscle against the Oakland Raiders.
Outside linebacker Connor Barwin, another converted 4-3 end, moved to Williams' spot on the weakside in Week 7. He finished with a team-high 11.5 sacks, tied for ninth in the NFL and third in the AFC. He also led the Texans with 27 quarterback hits and had seven passes defensed. Barwin was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month in November after leading the league with 6.5 sacks in three games.
Outside linebacker Brooks Reed set a Texans rookie record with 6.0 sacks. He moved into the starting lineup after Williams' injury and spent one game on the weakside. In Week 7, Reed moved to the strongside and reeled off a sack in five consecutive games. He had 11 quarterback hits on the season and 3.5 sacks in the playoffs, tying three other players for the league postseason lead.
DeMeco Ryans started inside on the weakside at Mo linebacker. While recovering from a torn Achilles that ended his 2010 season, Ryans also played through an elbow injury and started all 16 games. The defensive captain had 66 tackles (44 solo) and was named the Texans' Ed Block Courage Award winner.
Second-year linebacker Darryl Sharpton split reps with Ryans before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 8. Veteran inside linebacker Tim Dobbins had only four tackles in the regular season but made a crucial goal-line stand in the third quarter of the Texans' Divisional Round loss at Baltimore.
Outside linebackers Bryan Braman and Jesse Nading and inside linebacker Mister Alexander saw limited action in backup roles.
Linebackers in Review
Starters: ILB: Brian Cushing (16 games 2 postseason), DeMeco Ryans (16 games 2 postseason); OLB: Connor Barwin (16 games 2 postseason), Brooks Reed (11 games 2 postseason), Mario Williams (5 games)
Newcomers: Reed (second-round draft pick), Tim Dobbins (free agent signing), Bryan Braman (undrafted rookie free agent), Mister Alexander (undrafted rookie free agent)
Injuries: Williams (season-ending pectoral, Week 5) ; Ryans (elbow, preseason); Sharpton (season-ending quadriceps, Week 8)
Notable number: 9.5 – Sacks for Barwin from Week 9 through the end of the season, tied with Jared Allen and Elvis Dumervil for most in the NFL. All of those sacks came after Barwin switched from strongside linebacker to Williams' former spot on the weakside.
Season highlight: Week 12 at Jacksonville – Barwin had a team-record 4.0 sacks and a career-high 10 tackles as the Texans beat the Jaguars 20-13 at EverBank Field. Reed added a sack of his own as the Texans tied a team record with seven sacks in the game. Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert was benched in the fourth quarter after posting a 44.6 rating.
Quotable: "Looks like he can play outside linebacker to me." - Wade Phillips on Sept. 11 on Williams, after Williams had two sacks in Week 1 against Indianapolis
"I think he's played outstanding. He's a holy terror on the field." - Phillips on Sept. 22 on Cushing
"This is the second time this year it's happened. It was kind of uncontrollable today, just pouring out. I don't know. If it's got to send a message to our team about playing physical and getting them going, I'll do it every game." - Cushing on Nov. 6, after bleeding profusely from his forehead thanks to a head butt by Browns guard Shaun Lauvao in Week 9 at Reliant Stadium
"He's unleashing this year. That's the bottom line – he gets better and better every week." – Defensive end Antonio Smith on Nov. 27 on Barwin, after Barwin's record-setting game at Jacksonville
"I think it's official that 'Bulls on Parade' is the new name of this defense. Every time they played that song, the crowd was like a 12th man." - Barwin on Dec. 4, after the Texans beat the Falcons 17-10 at Reliant Stadium, a few days after the "Bulls on Parade" nickname was born on Twitter
"It's an amazing feeling — a great feeling and big sigh of relief. Six years is a long time to wait."- Ryans on Dec. 11, after the Texans clinched their first-ever AFC South title in Week 14 at Cincinnati
"Brooks Reed has come in and really hasn't played like a rookie. He's played like a good player. He's relentless as far as the running game and the passing game, and that's helped him get better and better." - Phillips on Jan. 12 on Reed