HOUSTON - Brooks Reed still speaks softly, projecting a level of humility that both belies his accomplishments and shows proper deference to the veterans within earshot of his locker.
He is as unassuming off the field as he is maniacal on it, his blond tresses whipping about serving as one of the enduring images of the Texans' breakout season. Coincidentally, if one were to recount snapshots that resonate, the list would certainly include blood streaming down the face of Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin proudly sporting his Bulls On Parade' t-shirt, and DeMeco Ryans' arm encapsulated by that bulky elbow brace.
The Texans' linebackers have been standouts and steadfast. En route to Saturday's AFC wild-card game at Reliant Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals (9-7), the Texans (10-6) lost both their most athletic (Mario Williams) and their most unsung (Darryl Sharpton) linebackers. Their collective production is a testament to their collective perseverance.
"I think we've just been resilient, we really have," Cushing said. "I think a lot of guys around here are sick of going home in January and not making the playoffs, and it was time for us to step up and we knew that.
"We had our backs against the wall, and we really wanted to be the organization that we knew we could. We knew it was time to win and put the scheme forward of what we have. And we have the talent, the coaches and everything around us, so it was just time to go do it. It was a next man up' kind of attitude, whether one of the star players went down or not, next guy is going have to step up and we weren't going to have a drop off."
The production of Cushing (a team-leading 114 tackles with four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles) and Ryans (64 tackles, one forced fumble) reveals part of the story. Cushing opened training camp slowed by a troublesome knee yet recovered and developed with the stunning haste to earn team MVP honors. Ryans, not yet back to form following an Achilles' injury that shortened his 2010 season, pushed through that complication and an elbow issue that arose in preseason.
Their workload was impacted when Sharpton suffered a season-ending quad injury against the Jaguars and was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 2. Sharpton was a versatile and valuable third linebacker, and the hit to the Texans' rotation required Cushing and Sharpton to set a standard beyond the physical sacrifice they were already producing. Much of the credit for the improved run defense, which ranked fourth in the NFL at 96 yards per game, rests at the feet of Cushing and Ryans.
Cushing deserved Pro Bowl recognition, and despite the snub is sure to earn All-Pro accolades. Ryans' impact has been subtle yet substantial.
"Even through camp when I felt like I wasn't doing something right, he (Ryans) knows everyone's position basically," Reed said. "If I didn't go to (linebackers coach) Reggie Herring I could go to DeMeco. If he's standing next to me I could ask him something and he knows just as well as Reggie does. DeMeco is almost another coach, just an extra set of eyes out there. He's a player so he can relate."
The impact of Barwin and Reed can be best described as serendipitous. Cushing and Ryans have skins on the wall as Pro Bowl players, and while their rebounding from injury was noteworthy, their production wasn't a surprise.
Barwin, in his first season at outside linebacker, and Reed, a rookie who played defensive end at Arizona, were godsends, particularly given the loss of Williams in Week 5. Barwin shifted from Sam linebacker in replacing Williams and paced the Texans with 11.5 sacks and 27 quarterback hits. Reed filled the void in the starting lineup left by Williams' loss and posted 44 tackles (seven for loss), 11 quarterback hits and six sacks. To expect such exceptionality from two players essentially new to the position, sans Williams, would've been absurd.
"We knew he (Barwin) could play, or we felt like he was an outside linebacker prospect," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "With Mario playing well we penciled him into Sam and he played that well starting out and then Mario got hurt and then he just kept getting better and better. You know, 11.5 sacks, he probably had one or two called back, but he had 11.5 sacks and Mario had five. That's 16.5 at that position. So, he helped that position remain dominant for us, and that's what you need in a 3-4 (alignment)."
Said Texans coach Gary Kubiak: "With Brooks, there was a question (of his immediate impact potential). He was going from his hand down to his hand up, so he had a position change. You lose Mario Williams; you've got to step in there for Mario Williams, so how's he going to react to that? We knew he'd be a good player, but I think the job he did as quickly as he's done has been exceptional."
Whether the Texans' season ends this weekend, in Baltimore, Foxboro or Indianapolis, its summary will include the "next man up" mantra. A deeper analysis will reveal the unit of greatest impact, a group duty-bound to overcome bumps and bruises and the loss of key contributors.
The narrative will speak kindly of Cushing, Ryans, Barwin and Reed. What they have provided will reverberate with those who watched every step taken by the Texans during this memorable campaign.
"We know we have a job to the team, and that's to go out and execute and do what we can to the best of our abilities, so we just try to do that and really push through them," Cushing said. "It's a long season. It's a grind, but for the most part I think it's for people who want it the most."
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