Perhaps no single position group in the NFL was hit with more injuries last season than the linebackers of the Houston Texans. The linebacking corps, particularly on the inside, was ravaged with injuries all season, and that can be a problematic situation for a team that employs a 3-4 defense. Wade Phillips‘ crew was still good in spite of the injuries, finishing seventh in total defense and seventh in rushing defense.
However, all of the attrition on the second level caught up to the Texans in the postseason as their linebackers were exposed by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoff loss. The New England running back combo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen had a field day, combining for four touchdowns and 219 total yards. They were particularly lethal in space, as Houston’s linebackers struggled to cover them out of the backfield. Brady took full advantage, completing two touchdown passes to Vereen on intermediate pass routes.
The Texans’ starting linebacking crew that day consisted of Bradie James and Barrett Ruud on the inside and Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed outside. When the Texans kick off the regular season September 9th on Monday Night Football at the San Diego Chargers, the linebacker group will be completely different than the one on the field last January. Of those four who started against the Patriots, only Reed remains on the team. Barwin left via free agency to join the Philadelphia Eagles while James and Ruud are free agents who have yet to be picked up by a team.
The return of three inside linebackers from injury and the addition of two outside linebackers in the draft will give Phillips plenty of versatile options for his 3-4 defense. Nothing will bolster the strength of the defense more than the return of Brian Cushing in the middle. The drop off was considerable for the ‘Bulls on Parade’ once he went down with a torn ACL in week 5. Although he’s not participating in OTAs, Cushing is on schedule to be ready for the start of the season.
Who will start inside next to him is still being determined. Both Darryl Sharpton and Tim Dobbins are healthy after missing the playoffs with season ending injuries. It was a tough year for Sharpton, who missed the season’s first eight weeks, only to get injured again in the finale and miss the playoffs. If he can stay healthy, he will have the best chance to start. If not, this is where Reed will come in as a wild card.
Reed, who missed four games himself in 2012, has been receiving reps at inside linebacker during OTAs. This is where Phillips having more versatility with his linebackers will come into play. Houston drafted two outside linebackers in Sam Montgomery out of LSU in the third round and Trevardo Williams out of Connecticut in round four this April. If one of them has an impressive training camp and shows they’re ready to start outside, Reed may start inside next to Cushing. Phillips can then move Reed back outside on third and passing downs to take advantage of his pass rushing prowess. Special teams dynamo Bryan Braman has also been working on the outside with the first team at OTAs.
The Texans will certainly continue experimenting with this look in training camp. It will be beneficial for them to have options and depth that the injuries robbed the linebacking unit of last season. Second year man Whitney Mercilus will replace Barwin at the other outside spot. In his rookie season, Mercilus finished third on the team with six sacks in limited action and is primed to wreak havoc in a full time role. Barring any more significant injuries, the Texans linebackers will be a much more dangerous unit this season than the one that finished last season.