The Houston Texans set out to solve two issues Wednesday, cutting return specialist Trindon Holliday and signing linebacker Barrett Ruud in the wake of Brian Cushing's season-ending injury.
Cushing was placed on injured reserve after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in Monday night's 23-17 win over the New York Jets. The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Ruud, a second-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2005, was cut by New Orleans on Monday.
The Texans (5-0) play Green Bay (2-3) on Sunday night. While coach Gary Kubiak has started grooming Tim Dobbins to replace Cushing, the team looked to improve its subpar return game by releasing Holliday.
The 5-foot-5 Holliday won a roster spot after returning three kicks (two punts and a kickoff) for touchdowns in the preseason. That didn't translate to the regular season: Houston ranks last in kickoff return average (17.6 yards) and 16th in punt return average (9.2 yards).
"By no means is it a statement or anything about what we thought of Trindon," Kubiak said. "We have not been playing up to par on special teams, giving returners the opportunity. That had nothing to do with it. You never know, our paths may cross again. But we wish him the best. He did a good job, he earned his way onto this team, but we had to make a tough decision."
The more immediate concern is filling Cushing's role. The 2009 first-round draft pick was not only the team's leading tackler this season (43), he was also one of the emotional leaders and most respected players in the locker room.
"You feel for Brian, because of what football means to him, and what this team means to him," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "But it's time to take it to a new level. It's time for me to step up, it's time for this team to step up. It's just another challenge for us to overcome."
Dobbins came in for Cushing on Monday night, and Kubiak reiterated Wednesday that Dobbins was the best option to step into Cushing's spot. Dobbins played his first four NFL seasons with San Diego, including one season under Wade Phillips, now the Texans' defensive coordinator.
"We know Dobbins is going to go in there and play well," Kubiak said, "and every player in our locker room is going to take on a little bit more responsibility."
Outside linebacker Connor Barwin kicked Dobbins during the Texans' team meeting on Wednesday, trying to lighten his mood. Dobbins, a standout on special teams last season, was already in game mode.
"He was locked in, taking notes," Barwin said, "so it's a little different already. He knew, if he looked over, I'd be making jokes at him or something. But he didn't even look. So he's all ears right now, taking everything in, making sure he doesn't miss any assignments."
Dobbins downplayed the pressure of replacing Cushing, Houston's leading tackler in 2009 (133) and 2011 (114).
"I'm not him, of course," he said, "but I will try to do my best to fill in his shoes."
Ruud started 68 games for Tampa Bay between 2005-10. He started nine games for Tennessee last season, making 57 tackles and deflecting three passes. He played in three games for the Saints before he was released on Monday. Next stop, Houston.
"They just kind of said, 'Hey, learn as much as you can, as fast as you can,'" Ruud said. "That's kind of my goal right now."
Kubiak said fourth-round draft pick Keshawn Martin will take over punt and kickoff return duties, an area where he excelled at Michigan State. The 5-11, 190-pound Martin ranks second in school history in punt return yards (659), eighth in kickoff return yards (1,100) and 10th in all-purpose yards (4,013).
"You've got to hit it and get it on those things," Martin said. "I've got my opportunity now, so we're going to see where it takes us."
Martin has been working "heavily" on returning kicks for the past month, Kubiak said, and now he can make that his sole focus, with receiver Lestar Jean healthy again. Jean has missed the last two games following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee last month.
Backup running back Justin Forsett and starting safety Danieal Manning also have experience returning kicks, but Kubiak said Martin is his first choice.
"Hopefully, he can give us a boost, get us going a little bit," Kubiak said.
Notes: Kubiak said RB Ben Tate (toe) practiced on Wednesday and is expected to play on Sunday. Tate sat out Monday night's game. ... S Quintin Demps (left forearm fracture) sat out Wednesday's workout. ... The Texans also signed G Cody White off the practice squad. The 603, 301-pound White is an undrafted rookie out of Illinois State.
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