Once again, the Houston Texans’ defensive depth will be tested.
They’ve been down this road before with inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee during the first quarter of Sunday’s 23-14 home win over the Chicago Bears.
Cushing missed a total of 20 games in 2012 and 2013 after tearing knee ligaments and breaking a leg.
That said, head coach Bill O’Brien conceded it’s hard “any time you lose, basically, the heart and soul of your team.”
Third-year pro Max Bullough filled in and made 5 tackles, including 1 for a loss. The job will require more than just making stops. As the “Mike” linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, Bullough is responsible for defensive calls and knowing where teammates are supposed to line up on every play.
“I’m fully confident,” Bullough said succinctly on Monday.
So, too, are the Texans, who can also lean more on Benardrick McKinney, a 2015 second-round selection who starts at the other inside linebacker position.
“Max is a very bright player; B-Mac, those guys are good football players,” O’Brien said. “We feel like we’ve built depth there, and it’s next man up. That’s the National Football League. Sometimes injuries happen. It’s a tough, tough game and the next guy has to step up.”
Defensive end J.J. Watt, among other teammates, expressed confidence in Bullough.
“Max is one of the smartest guys around,” Watt said. “He’s always ready, he’s always prepared and he did a great job filling in for ‘Cush.’ It’s tough. Big shoes to fill.”
Cushing led the third-ranked Texans defense with 110 tackles last season. Bullough, a former undrafted free agent, had logged an extensive workload with the base defense only once before, his only start last season. He attributed his readiness to learning from Cushing, who reportedly won’t need surgery but is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.
“I approach every day the same,” Bullough said after the game. “I’ve been expecting to play since the first day I got here — on special teams or defense. I’ve approached every day like that. I’ve had great help from guys like Brian to give me some pointers.”
That means a lot of film study as well as understanding the importance of taking care of his body, a lesson he learned from Cushing.
“I’ve played football my whole life,” said Bullough, a former All-Big Ten standout at Michigan State. “It’s just what I’ve always done. It’s about coming to work every day and doing my job.”
The 24-year-old son of a former Michigan State linebacker is a no-nonsense guy in interviews. He doesn’t say much and is intensely serious.
When asked about the season opener, he immediately shifted the focus toward preparing for the next game against the Kansas City Chiefs (1-0) Sunday at Houston’s NRG Stadium.
“I’m ready to do whatever my teammates ask me, my coaches ask me,” Bullough said. “It’s been the same since Day 1. I’ve said the same thing since I got here, I’m just doing what I’m asked and I’m excited to do whatever that is.”
Even without Cushing, the defending AFC South Division champions have one of the league’s stingiest defenses. Watt is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year recipient and four-time Pro Bowl selection. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus had a career-high 12 sacks last season and started 2016 with two more on Sunday. Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, a 2014 No. 1 overall selection, is finally healthy and began the new season with 4 tackles and 1 sack.
Cushing became an immediate cornerstone after being selected with the 15th overall pick in 2009. He made a career-high 134 total tackles and earned his only Pro Bowl selection as a rookie. In eight seasons, the 29-year-old linebacker has amassed 586 total tackles.
“It’s tough to see one of your brothers go down,” Watt said Sunday. “It’s very tough, so we’ll rally. … We’ll rally around and make sure we do a good job until he gets back. And we hope he gets back as quickly as he can.”
O’Brien said Bullough “did a nice job” against the Bears and “was a solid player for us.” Last season, Bullough appeared in 13 games with one start and made 30 total tackles.
When on-field assistance is needed, Bullough can consult with McKinney, who started 11 of 14 games and made 63 total tackles last season. McKinney, like Bullough, had 5 tackles against the Bears.
Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, who joined the team as an offseason free agent, said early in training camp that when lining up against his defense he always had to account for McKinney.
“B-Mack is a special player,” Osweiler said. “He’s physically imposing, too. He’s extremely talented, very athletic. He can stop the run game, he can plug holes, he can shed blocks. But he can also cover backs out in space, so that makes him an extremely special football player.”