Led by one of the best linebacker tandems in the NFL in DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, the Texans' linebackers were the standout position group on the best defense in team history.
SEASON IN REVIEW: Linebackers
Position coach:Johnny Holland (15th NFL season, 4th with Texans)
Week 1 starters:DeMeco Ryans (middle linebacker), Brian Cushing (strongside), Zac Diles (weakside)
Week 17 starters:Ryans, Cushing, Diles
Key injuries:Cushing (knee, foot, ribs, finger)
By the numbers (top statistical performers):Cushing (133 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 1 safety), Ryans (123 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery)
Season overview:In his fourth NFL season and third as a defensive captain, Ryans got a new running mate. Cushing became a starter the moment the Texans drafted him in April, and the 15th overall pick out of USC did not disappoint.
Cushing, like Ryans in 2006, was named the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. And like Ryans after the 2007 season, he was named second-team All-Pro. Both players finished in the top 10 in the NFL in tackles and were selected to the Pro Bowl, making them the only pair of linebacker teammates to be chosen for the game.
"He helped me elevate my game and made me better," Ryans said of Cushing. "That competition between me and him, just trying to be the best, that's what took our games to the next level. Me and Brian, we always talk about being the best—being the best one-two punch out there and just leading the defense."
One of the most remarkable things about Cushing's season is that, for much of it, he didn't even practice. A knee injury kept the rookie out of the preseason, and he battled foot, rib, shoulder and hand injuries during the regular season. Those injuries will keep Cushing out of the Pro Bowl, but he started all 16 games and almost never came off the field during the season.
"His love for the game, his passion, his play, playing beat up, all those things, playing like a 10-year vet from the day he stepped on the field – the players respect what he does with the game and how he goes about his business," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "What a year. He was exceptional."
This was the first time in Ryans' career that he didn't lead the Texans in tackles, but he had perhaps his finest season as a pro. He was the leader of a defense that gave up the fewest points (333) and yards (5,198) in Texans history and was one of the league's toughest units over the final 12 games of the season.
"We feel like we've improved overall as a team and can go toe-to-toe with anyone," Ryans said. "I know everyone has that confidence that we can come out winners and we have a playoff-caliber team. We just have to find a way to handle our business earlier in the season and finish strong and go for a playoff run next year."
Diles started 12 games at weakside linebacker in his third NFL season. After suffering a season-ending leg injury in 2008, he had 61 tackles in 2009 and led the team with 7.5 tackles for loss. Ryans and Cushing both had seven.
Depth at linebacker was provided by second-year pro Xavier Adibi and special teams captain Kevin Bentley. The Texans lost linebackers Chaun Thompson and Khary Campbell to season-ending knee injuries in consecutive weeks early in the season.
2010 outlook:One of the major questions of the Texans' offseason will be what happens with Ryans, whose contract is up. The four-year veteran will be a restricted free agent barring a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Thompson and Campbell, who are primarily special teams players, will be unrestricted free agents.
Should Ryans re-sign with the Texans, Houston again will have one of the youngest and most talented linebacker corps in the NFL. Ryans, Cushing, Diles and Adibi are all 25 or younger. Bentley, an eight-year veteran, is a versatile backup with starting experience.
The linebackers were the strength of the Texans' defense in 2009. With Ryans and Cushing leading the charge, that should be a recurring theme for many seasons to come.