Smart. Tough. Dependable.
Those three words personify the ideal 2019 Houston Texans player, according to head coach Bill O’Brien.
When it comes to all three characteristics, inside linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham not only check all the boxes, they've been exemplary. Both are not only the core of a defense dealing with multiple injuries, the dynamic duo has started all nine games so far this season and are Houston’s leading tacklers.
"I mean, you can't underestimate that,” head coach Bill O’Brien said. “Both of those guys, Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham are playing at a very high level, and the thing about Benardrick is he brings a level of physicality to our defense. He's big, he can run, he's got great instincts, good tackler, tough guy and an even better guy, great guy in the locker room. And Zach does a lot of different things for us. Very athletic, made a great player on the punt team, a tackle he made on punt team and then all of the plays he made on defense, including a takeaway. Both of guys are very important to the defense."
The Texans run defense, through nine games, has allowed an average of just 84.1 yards per game which ranks second in the AFC and third in the NFL. McKinney, a fifth-year veteran, is coming off a Pro Bowl performance in 2018 and has 60 tackles (32 solo), three tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, three quarterback hits, two passes defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries so far this season.
“He's versatile,” linebackers coach Bobby King said. “We ask a lot of things of him. He's the quarterback, the heartbeat of our defense. When he starts hitting people to start a game off, it's contagious. When he's got energy, it's contagious, and he's on pace to do things like he did last year as a far as what everybody recognizes from him. He's been a good football player for a long time, and finally the world caught up to all that.”
In Sunday's 26-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, Cunningham recovered a fumble by quarterback Gardner Minshew and returned it 24 yards with just 3:39 left in the game. The third-year starter has already tied a single-season high in tackles for loss (5) with seven games remaining and recorded the first two fumble recoveries of his career, the other being against the L.A. Chargers in Week 3.“He's a versatile guy,” linebackers coach Bobby King said. “He does a lot of things well. He's got length, he can run, and what people miss about Zach is he's a tough guy, too.”
McKinney and Cunningham have recorded 125 tackles (36 solo) through nine games and have been part of a defense that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 25 consecutive regular season games, dating back to Week 1 of the 2018 season.