The biggest question facing the Texans on their bye week was how they would replace DeMeco Ryans at middle linebacker. The answer, it turns out, is strongside linebacker Brian Cushing.
The 2009 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year will move to the middle for the rest of the season. Kevin Bentley moves into the starting lineup on the strong side.
"I think it's about leadership right now with our defense and getting better as a group and somebody taking the group over," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on Monday. "When we took all that into account, number 56 was the best guy to step in there and lead our defense."
Cushing started all 16 games at strongside linebacker as a Texans rookie, recording four sacks, four interceptions and a team-high 133 tackles. He was an outside linebacker and defensive end at USC.
He got extensive practice reps at middle linebacker as a senior in college, when he served as the backup to Rey Maualuga. Cushing started at middle linebacker in one game, filling in for an injured Maualuga against Oregon in 2008.
Now, he'll make a full-time position switch to replace Ryans, his mentor who is out for the season with a torn left Achilles tendon.
"They're very similar positions," Cushing said. "The biggest difference is going to be the vocal part.
"The mental part, I'm obviously going to have to focus in a little bit more. I'm going to have to be on the field just as much as I would have been at SAM. Overall, I think I've just got to lock in a little bit more. I'm going to have to be the quarterback of the defense, and I'm fine doing that."
Bentley, a ninth-year veteran, returned to practice Monday after a three-game absence because of arthroscopic knee surgery. He started seven games at strongside linebacker for the Texans in 2008 and has been Ryans' top backup at middle linebacker for the past three seasons.
"I was hoping to be the MIKE, but I'm grateful to be the SAM and to actually have a chance to start in this league again," Bentley said. "I feel like I'm a leader and I can lead from anywhere on the field."
Rookie linebacker Darryl Sharpton, who was inactive in Week 6 with ankle and hand injuries, also returned to practice on Monday.
Linebacker Xavier Adibi is still sidelined by a hamstring injury, but Kubiak expects him to return to practice on Thursday and be ready for next week's game at Indianapolis. Adibi started at strongside linebacker during Cushing's four-game suspension at the beginning of the season.
Zac Diles will remain the starter at weakside linebacker. Last week, Kubiak entertained the idea of moving Diles to the middle, or elevating Bentley or Sharpton to Ryans' spot.
"I didn't want Zac moving," Kubiak said. "I just didn't like what I saw. I didn't like it back when we had the problem earlier when we talked about moving Zac when Cushing wasn't here. We want him to stay at home."
Diles said he was ready for whatever decision the coaches made. Like the rest of his teammates, he's looking forward to seeing how Cushing does in his new role.
"He'll be fine," Diles said. "He's been here for two years now. He's very familiar with the defense and he knows all three positions, so he could play WILL if he needed to. We're not going to skip a beat. I'm confident he'll get the job done."