As they search for their first postseason berth, the Houston Texans are ecstatic about their franchise-best 3-1 start. The best part is that it has come without last year’s rookie defensive player of the year, Brian Cushing(notes).
Cushing will make his season debut for the Texans when they host the New York Giants and their prolific pass rush Sunday.
Coach Gary Kubiak was concerned about how Houston would fare without Cushing, who started every game last year and led the team with 133 tackles. The linebacker was handed a four-game suspension for taking a performance-enhancing drug.
Cushing worked out six days a week at his home in New Jersey during the suspension that he unsuccessfully appealed and nearly cost him the rookie of the year honors since the voting took place again. The Texans are glad to have him back.
“He’s a leader by his play, he’s a very fiery guy,” Kubiak said. “Brian helps us rush the passer, when we’re in nickel, he gives us flexibility moving around. Obviously, he’s a big, big part of our team and getting him back is important to a lot of players.”
The Texans have the second-best rushing defense in the league, yielding 62.2 yards per game. The addition of Cushing should only make the unit better, especially with the Giants (2-2) featuring Ahmad Bradshaw(notes), fifth in the league with 382 rushing yards.
“They like to bring him in making a five-man rush,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said about Cushing. “He does a good job in coverage when he drops. He was rookie defensive player of the year.”
Bradshaw was hobbled by a sore ankle after a 17-3 win over Chicago last week. The running back recorded his second-highest career rushing total with 129 yards on 23 carries, and he got limited work in Friday’s practice but said he should be ready to go.
There are numerous other injury concerns for both teams.
Texans Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson(notes) sat out last week’s 31-24 win at Oakland with a sprained right ankle while third-leading receiver and top punt returner Jacoby Jones(notes) strained a calf in that game. Johnson is a game-time decision and Jones is doubtful.
For New York, linebacker Keith Bulluck(notes), defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka(notes) (neck), tackle Will Beatty (foot), fullback Madison Hedgecock(notes) (hamstring) and center Shaun O’Hara(notes) (Achilles’ and ankle) have been ruled out.
New York did not miss a beat without Kiwanuka and his four sacks - then a team high - last week. The Giants had 10 sacks - three each by Justin Tuck(notes) and Umenyiora - to fall two shy of the franchise record set three years ago against Philadelphia.
“That performance last week was one for the ages, it was unbelievable,” Kubiak said. “We’re going to have to hunker down and find a way to keep our quarterback upright the best way we can and go from there.”
The Texans remain without left tackle Duane Brown(notes), who has two games left on his suspension for violating the league’s banned substance policy. Rashad Butler(notes) has filled in well for him, and Matt Schaub(notes) was not sacked in last week’s victory.
Houston’s offensive line has helped Arian Foster(notes) develop into the league’s top rusher with 537 yards. Foster was benched for the start of the Oakland game for breaking team rules but still finished with 131 yards on 16 carries.
Derrick Ward(notes) started in his place and gained 80 yards on 12 carries. Ward rushed for a career-high 1,025 yards two years ago in his fifth and final season with New York before joining Tampa Bay as a free agent before last season.
The Buccaneers cut Ward, who signed with Houston before the season.
“When we got him, I think he was a little overweight, and I challenged him to get down,” Kubiak said. “He’s done that for me.”
The Giants have the third-best defense in the league, giving up 257.0 yards per game, but rank 22nd against the run with an average of 117.2 yards allowed.
While the Texans excel against the run, they have allowed 337.8 yards per game through the air for the league’s worst passing defense. New York’s Eli Manning(notes), though, has gone consecutive regular-season games without a touchdown pass for the first time since his rookie season of 2004.
These teams have split two meetings, with the Texans earning one of their four wins in their inaugural 2002 season with a 16-14 home victory.