One year ago. Week 5. The Houston Texans are off to a hot start, especially on defense, having held three of their first four opponents to 13 or fewer points. But in that fifth game of the season, Houston loses an elite presence in the front seven with Pro Bowler Mario Williams going down with a torn pectoral muscle. Panic in Texas. No way this team can compete without their top pass rusher, right?
Well, without Williams, the Texans still managed to give up fewer regular-season points than all but three teams. They also found a way to register 44 sacks (sixth in the league) and had the NFL's fourth most productive pass rush, according to Pro Football Focus.
Fast forward 366 days. Week 5 of this season. The Houston Texans are off to an even hotter start, especially on defense, having held three of their first four opponents to 14 or fewer points. But in that fifth game of the season last night against the Jets, Houston loses an elite presence in the front seven with Pro Bowler Brian Cushing suffering a torn ACL. Panic in Texas? Maybe a little, but this team proved last year that it can overcome seemingly significant losses on D.
The difference between Williams and Cushing is that Cushing is less of a pass-rushing threat but is more versatile. Last year, PFF rated him as the team's second-best run defender, fourth-best pass rusher and fourth-best cover guy. Cumulatively, they gave him the third-best overall grade among the league's inside linebackers in 2011.
So being capable of replacing Williams without missing a beat doesn't necessarily mean the Texans can do the same with Cushing. They'll miss him — make no mistake — but by no means should losing the former first-round pick out of USC cost the Texans any ball games.
It helps, of course, that Houston is already stacked up front defensively. J.J. Watt is having a season for the ages and is the early (heavy) favorite to be the league's defensive player of the year. I don't remember the last time I saw anyone dominate over a five-game stretch like Watt has thus far. What Watt, Shaun Cody, Antonio Smith and Brooks Reed bring to the table might actually be unmatched league wide.
The Texans are clearly thin at linebacker now, but it's a good thing they brought in veterans Tim Dobbins and Bradie James in each of the last two seasons to provide some depth. Those two will start together on the inside now, costing the Texans some speed and overall skill. But Dobbins has been good in a relief role the last two years and James — while old — has performed well covering linebackers and running backs in the past.
But the real key here is that Cushing wasn't even off to a very strong start. It didn't matter that he was yet to register a sack and hadn't made a big play since picking off Ryan Tannehill in the first half of the first game of the season. Just like it still doesn't seem to matter much that the Texans are still vulnerable in the secondary.
They'll overcome because Wade Phillips has a system that gets results, plain and simple. And he's still got his key play-maker in Watt to go along with some steady complements.
Of course they'd prefer to have Cushing still, but this defense was built to withstand a loss like this. We saw it last year, and we'll see it again in 2012.