The first time that I saw Benardrick McKinney on the field at Mississippi State, I thought he was playing the wrong position. To him, it might have felt like the wrong position, too. He was a quarterback in high school, albeit just one of his many responsibilities as an All-State star at Rosa Fort (MS) High School.
Why did I feel that way? Well, on the hoof, he looked like a ready-made outside linebacker in a 3-4. He was tall, long and seemingly the prototype of what 3-4 teams look for in an outside linebacker. Consequently, I was conflicted a bit when I saw him out on the field.
Then, I watched him play the inside linebacker spot and realized that he was in the right spot all along. When the Texans drafted him, I mentioned the fact that he could play some 3-4 outside linebacker at some point, but he’s progressed so far in his two seasons in Houston that it’s hard to even think about him not playing in the middle of the Texans defense.
When Brian Cushing was injured on the first drive of the 2016 season, McKinney was put in charge at mike linebacker and has been outstanding. Perfect? No. Flourishing as the leader of the defense in Cushing’s stead? Absolutely.
He’s tied for ninth in the NFL in total tackles with 29 stops. Of those in the top ten in tackles, he leads those players with two sacks - in fact the only other linebacker with a sack in that group is Tampa Bay linebacker Kwon Alexander.
Against New England, he had 16 stops, a sack, a tackle for a loss and a quarterback hit. He was the only Texan to register a sack, a tackle for a loss and/or a quarterback hit. Even though, I didn’t really want to look back at the film of the game, I wanted to go back and see how well Benardrick played against the Patriots and what the future holds, especially with a team that’ll pound the rock like Tennessee will on Sunday afternoon.
One play really stood out that seemingly encapsulated McKinney’s growth as a player and how the rest of his mates help him against the run as well.
Patriots star linebacker Jamie Collins had just picked off a pass and ran it back to the Houston 43 yard line. On first down, the Patriots came out in 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends - one receiver)
The Patriots then shifted the tight end from the right side to the left side. As soon as he started across the formation, look at McKinney.
He was in charge of getting everyone moved to adjust to the change in the formation. He got everyone moved to the right spot and then he got back into his proper position, ready for the snap.
The Patriots ran a power gap play, pulling guard Shaq Mason from the right side to the left side to kick out an interior defender and asking fullback James Develin (Brown University, represent) to lead up on linebacker Max Bullough.
On the snap…
...Vince Wilfork was immediately doubled at the point of attack. But, if that’s happened once in his career, it’s happened a million times. Wilfork took on the blocks beautifully, occupying both center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney. They didn’t move him and by not getting budged, Thuney and Andrews had to stay on the block and neither player could get up to the second level to block McKinney.
Also, look at rookie Joel Heath playing in the game for the first time. The Patriots had long time left tackle Nate Solder turn out on Heath but the Texans rookie drove Solder back into the hole and minimized the area that McKinney had to cover on the inside.
Heath did such a good job that he drew Mason's attention while Develin aimed to block Bullough. At this point, the play was essentially funneled back into McKinney.
When Bullough beat Develin to the spot, Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount had nowhere to go and McKinney was in the exact spot to make the stuff for no gain.
McKinney and his mates could get Brian Cushing back soon, if not as early as Sunday against Tennessee. However, Cushing’s absence allowed McKinney to flourish, and it was valuable experience for McKinney and productive for this Texans defense in those first three games.
The Titans will test McKinney and this defense on the ground early and often for numerous reasons, so it’s imperative that McKinney respond in the same way he has the past three games.