No position on the Texans was more affected by injuries this season than inside linebacker. And no player they lost to injury was more important than inside linebacker Brian Cushing.
Cushing, the Texans' MVP and a second-team All-Pro in 2011, was one of four Houston inside linebackers to end the season on injured reserve. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee on Oct. 8 courtesy of a low, late block by New York Jets guard Matt Slauson, who was later fined $10,000 for the hit by the NFL.
Much like quarterback Matt Schaub at Baltimore last season, Cushing watched from the sideline at New England last Sunday as the Texans were eliminated from the playoffs in the Divisional Round.
"I know it was difficult," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on Monday. "I watched Cush stand there as we were warming up for the game (at New England, a 41-28 loss). The hard thing in this business is you only get so many opportunities, and for him not to be there with us (in the playoffs) first off hurts our team. He's a great player, and I know that as a player, you can't take those opportunities for granted. I know it's been difficult on him just like it was for Matt last year, but Cush will be back. He'll be back better than ever, and we'll be a better team because he's back."
In 2011, the Texans lost Pro Bowl outside linebacker Mario Williams to a season-ending chest injury in Week 5. Their defense was able to maintain its elite level of play, finishing the season ranked second in yards and fourth in points allowed.
The Texans lost Cushing at the same point of this season. Whether because of his absence or a combination of factors, they suffered a precipitous drop-off without him in the lineup.
Through Week 4, with Cushing leading the defense with 30 tackles, the Texans ranked first in points (14.0) and yards (273.0) allowed per game. They were second in passing (182.8) and 11th in rushing (90.3) yards allowed.
From Weeks 5-17, with Cushing on injured reserve, the Texans ranked 18th in scoring (22.9), 13th in yards (340.0), 24th in passing (239.8) and seventh in rushing (100.2). They finished the season tied for ninth in scoring (20.7) and seventh in yards (323.3), 16th in passing (225.8) and seventh in rushing (97.5). They allowed 41 points and 457 yards (335 passing, 122 rushing) in their season-ending loss to the Patriots.
"He was always the heart and soul of the defense," Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. "We went as Cush went. Obviously, when Cush went down, J.J. (Watt) stepped up and made a lot of plays as well, (but) it'll be big for us to have him back from just an emotional standpoint, because he's always that guy. He's a guy that goes 100 miles per hour each and every week."
None of the Texans' players or coaches used Cushing's absence as an excuse for their disappointing end to the season. Every team deals with injuries, and the Texans were much healthier overall this season than in 2011. But there's no denying that the loss of Cushing – a defensive captain, a tenacious leader and relentless playmaker in the middle of Wade Phillips' defense – was a major blow.
Cushing, 25, said in December that he was ahead of schedule in his rehab. He vowed to be better than ever in 2013. While he works his way back to the field, he's motivated by visions of running through the tunnel before a game for the first time next season.
As monumental as that day will be for Cushing, it'll just as huge for the Texans as they embark on another quest for a Super Bowl.
"It's gonna mean a lot," said free safety Glover Quin, who led the Texans in tackles this season after finishing a distant second to Cushing in 2011. "Brian's an integral part of this defense. He's an impact player. He's a big part of what we do. You can't replace a guy like Brian Cushing, and so to have him back and have him with another chip on his shoulder, it'll be big for us."