HOUSTON (AP) -- Brian Cushing didn't need long to show he was back after season-ending knee surgery.
The linebacker returned an interception for a touchdown, helping the Texans rally for a win at San Diego in their opener. Coach Gary Kubiak wasn't surprised. He could tell from practice the old Cushing had returned.
''I'm expecting really big things from him and, boy, was he off to a great start the other night,'' Kubiak said.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Cushing had been tackling at full speed in practice, which allowed him not to shy away from anything or be weary of contact on Monday night. Cushing picked off a pass from Philip Rivers in the fourth quarter and fell to the turf before getting up and returning it for an 18-yard touchdown to tie the game at 28-all.
''It was exciting,'' he said. ''To be able to go out there and do that my first game back was obviously a relief, but it just made everything worth it.''
It wasn't a completely perfect moment. When Cushing fell after the interception he landed on the ball and it knocked the wind out of him. He admitted he wasn't feeling great as he got up and ran.
''Adrenaline took over,'' he said. ''I just remember hoping not to get caught and I didn't.''
He saw limited action in preseason while easing his way back after surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The 26-year-old Cushing was sidelined by the injury in Week 5 last season.
The Texans were confident he'd return to form this season, and signed him to a six-year, $55.6 million contract extension, with $21 million guaranteed on Sept. 4.
Kubiak has always loved Cushing's attitude, but saw an even more determined side of him since his return.
''I just think it makes you appreciate playing when you miss so much ball like that,'' Kubiak said. ''He's very driven, and he's come back and been a big emotional leader for our football team.''
Cushing was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009. He's had more than 110 tackles in the two seasons when he played each game. The Texans are hoping he is as effective as he was before the injury, when he finished with 114 tackles and four sacks in 2011.
He was unhappy with the way the defense started on Monday when Houston got down 28-7 before mounting its comeback late. The Texans defense was suffocating after San Diego's first drive of the third quarter. The unit allowed just 10 yards after that touchdown.
''We can make it a lot easier on ourselves than that,'' Cushing said with a laugh. ''Just play like the second half, play like that the rest of the season. There were some mistakes and we didn't play nearly up to our standards in the first half. Just eliminate the bad plays and get on top of our assignments and we'll be fine.''
The group expects to get a boost this week with the return of defensive end Antonio Smith, who finished a three-game suspension against San Diego. Cushing said Smith is the emotional leader of the team and they missed his presence against the Chargers.
Now they get him back for Sunday's home opener against Tennessee. Cushing knows that the Titans are feeling confident after their solid defensive performance in last week's 16-9 win over the Steelers, and that they'll have to play well from the start on Sunday.
''They're 1-0 and feeling good about themselves, big road win, but we got a big road win too and now they have to come to Houston, which isn't an easy place to play,'' Cushing said.
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