J.J. Watt took all the accolades last year, and they were certainly deserved. His 20.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 72 stops from the 3-4 defensive end position during the regular season will go down as one of the great all-time campaigns.
However, Watt’s great year also coincided with the drop in the overall stinginess of the Houston Texans defense, finishing ninth in scoring defense and seventh in total defense a year after finishing fourth and second in those respective categories under the same defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips.
Many factors go into this dropoff including the health of cornerback Johnathan Joseph, but it’s undeniable that losing ILB Brian Cushing early was an absolutely huge factor in the underwhelming defensive output. After missing most of the 2012 NFL season due to an ACL injury in Week 5, the Texans backer has finally progressed through his recovery to participation in team 7-on-7 drills on Thursday.
“It felt great,” Cushing said, via the Houston Chronicle. “I’ve been telling guys this feels right. I’m playing football, making plays. It was a long offseason, but there’s really been no residual (problems) or anything holding me back. It’s been pretty much 100 percent and full-go.”
Houston held its first five opponents to 14 or fewer offensive points last season save for the Denver Broncos, who rose from 11 to 25 with two garbage-time touchdowns (the New York Jets had a return touchdown late in Week 5 to bring their total to 17). Again, Cushing isn’t the only factor, but he is absolutely critical as a lynchpin for a questionable Texans linebacking core.
Watt received Pro Football Reference’s highest approximate value for the Texans in 2012, and it was a healthy Cushing who earned that honor in 2011.