The Houston Texans are off to the best start in franchise history, and they've done it without some of their top players.
Now, they're getting back linebacker Brian Cushing, who rejoined the team Monday after serving a four-game drug suspension. Coach Gary Kubiak says last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year will play for Houston (3-1) in Sunday's game against New York (2-2).
"He's a leader by his play, he's a very fiery guy," Kubiak said Monday. "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."
Kubiak was worried about how his team would fare in its first four games without Cushing, who started every game at outside linebacker in 2009 and made 133 tackles.
Now, most of the concerns are on the offensive side, though Houston overcame those issues and showed off its depth in Sunday's 31-24 win at Oakland.
All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson sat out with a sprained right ankle that's nagged him for two weeks. Kubiak said Johnson's status is "day to day" this week. Third-leading receiver and top punt returner Jacoby Jones strained a calf against the Raiders and Kubiak says he'll update his status Wednesday.
With Johnson sidelined, Matt Schaub turned to reserve tight end Joel Dreessen, who caught five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. Kevin Walter added four catches for 35 yards.
Houston was already playing without left tackle Duane Brown, who still has two games left on his suspension for violating the league's banned substance policy. Schaub avoided a sack for the first time this season after another solid effort by Rashad Butler, Brown's backup.
The Texans even survived for a while Sunday without leading rusher Arian Foster, who was benched for the first quarter and a half for breaking team rules.
Foster broke a 74-yard run early in the third quarter and finished with 131 yards on 16 carries. Before that, newly acquired Derrick Ward got most of the carries and had a 33-yard touchdown run.
Ward finished with 80 yards rushing, and Kubiak said the former seventh-round draft pick will get more opportunities now. The Texans signed the 5-foot-11, 228-pound Ward as a free agent on Sept. 4.
"He's been showing some good things in practice, but you never know until you transfer them to the game," Kubiak said. "He's a big load. He's a big guy. He's always falling forward. I think he fits what we do. He's been very into what we do. I think he's caught up mentally and I think you guys will see even more of him."
A new star may have emerged on defense, too.
Safety Eugene Wilson missed the Oakland game with a hamstring injury, and reserve Troy Nolan picked off two passes, Houston's first interceptions of the season. Kubiak said Nolan, a seventh-round draft pick in 2009, earned more playing time with his performance.
Kubiak said contributions from reserve players have bolstered the confidence through the entire locker room.
"What happens eventually is that guys don't panic when you have issues," Kubiak said. "That's what was impressive about (Sunday). Not only did we have issues going into the game, we had some during the course of the game, and we just kept playing and new guys just kept stepping up."
Cushing's return might offer the biggest boost of all. He was one of the emotional leaders of the defense last season, helped the pass rush (four sacks) and ably dropped into coverage (four interceptions).
"Guys look to him to make plays on the field," Kubiak said. "He was big in the turnover area last year as a team. We had been poor up until (Sunday) in getting turnovers. There's not anybody on this team or in this organization not excited to have him come back."