Extra Points: Cushing injury could derail Texans

J.J. Watt provides the sizzle in Houston but Brian Cushing was the steak in the Texans' talented defensive unit.

Watt is enjoying a breakout sophomore season in the NFL, using his impressive 6-foot-6 frame to wreak havoc on opposing pockets.

The University of Wisconsin product's combination of speed and strength, combined with a non-stop motor, have turned him into the NFL's resident beast, and Watt's been able to lap players like the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul and Minnesota's Jared Allen as the best defensive end in football.

Watt is currently second in the NFL with 7 1/2 sacks and leads the league with eight passes defensed, three of which have been picked off and led to Texans scores. His uncanny ability to get his hands on passes at the line of scrimmage has become one of his calling cards and led to a pick-six for Watt in last year's Wild Card game against Cincinnati.

Since he arrived in the NFL, Watt leads all AFC defensive linemen with 12 passes batted down, including three against Miami in the 2012 season opener and three on Monday Night Football during a 23-17 Week 5 win over the Jets.

Watt is the living embodiment of the "splash play" that you often hear defensive coordinators talk about and is a major reason why the Texans are one of only two unbeaten teams in football as they get ready to host the Green Bay Packers for Football Night in America on Sunday night.

That primetime matchup will highlight two of the best defensive players in football, Watt and Green Bay's Clay Matthews, who leads the NFL with eight sacks.

But as good as Watt has become in South Texas, you could make a strong argument that he is not the most important cog in Wade Phillips' defense.

Cushing is the unit's leader and the fact that he is missing should be the bigger storyline on Sunday.

The Texans were able to improve to 5-0 by edging the Jets but lost Cushing in the process when Jets guard Matt Slauson rolled on his left leg during a cut block, resulting in a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

"I thought it was unnecessary whether it was legal or not," Phillips said when asked about the play. "I think the league needs to look at something like that. He was defenseless in that case. If the guy would've hit him in the head, it would've been a penalty because he came from the backside."

The NFL agreed with Phillips' assessment and fined Slauson $10,000 for the peel-back block on Thursday but that hardly was a comfort to Houston coach Gary Kubiak, who almost sounded like he was at a wake when discussing Cushing's MRI results.

"It's what we thought. He tore his ACL and we lost him for the year," he said. "He's going to have surgery, probably in about two or three weeks, when the swelling goes down. It's a big blow to our team. You feel bad for Brian because he works so hard. He's going to be missed."

Cushing, an All-Pro in 2011, had amassed 29 tackles and one interception so far this season.

Seven-year veteran Tim Dobbins, a journeyman with previous stops in San Diego and Miami, stepped in for the Pro Bowler in New York and is the first option to slide into his role, while the newly-signed Barrett Ruud will also be considered down the road.

"It's a challenge for our team, that's what this is," Kubiak said. "We know Dobbins is going to go in there and play well, and every player in our locker room is going to take on a little bit more responsibility."

That's the mentality in football -- it's always next man up.

But that next man up is never as talented as the man he is replacing. Both Dobbins and Ruud are cerebral players but lack Cushing's athleticism and playmaking skills.

Kubiak tried to bolster Dobbins' confidence earlier this week while making it clear others need to pick it up around him.

"He needs to get in there and get the reps with the ones," the coach said when discussing Dobbins on Thursday. "He got a ton of those today. He'll do a hell of a job. He should get better every time out.

"At the same time, everybody's got to do a little bit more to help him out."

If Dobbins falters, you can bet Ruud, who has plenty of starting experience with Tampa Bay, will get a strong look sooner rather than later.

"We're bringing him along slowly," Kubiak said of Ruud. "We're obviously trying to teach him this system. He's come a long way. (Linebackers coach) Reggie (Herring) and Wade feel good about his presence and we'll see where he's at."

"When he played for Tampa, I thought he played really well," Phillips added when discussing Ruud. "We looked at him as a free agent when he came out as a free agent. He was one of the top guys on our list we just didn't need inside linebackers at that time. We felt fortunate that we're able to pick him up now."

Defensive end Antonio Smith left out the positive spin.

"It's going to be a challenge because like I've been telling everybody, (Brian Cushing) is irreplaceable," Smith said. "What he does, not many people period can do."

The Texans aren't used to life at the top. For much of its decade-long existence, Houston has been an afterthought but one thing the franchise does understand is what it's like to lose a defensive star.

Defensive end Mario Williams, who is now with Buffalo, was regarded as the Texans' top defender last season before he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Week 5. Houston persevered to win its first division title.

The stakes are higher now. A second straight crown in the weak AFC South is virtually a given with or without Cushing.

But the Super Bowl?

That's certainly less likely but don't tell Cushing -- he's still doing his part.

"Trust me when I say that I'll be back better than ever next year," Cushing wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday, "but in the meantime, I want to thank my teammates, coaches, and you fans for all the amazing love and support."

"Oh, and WE are STILL winning THIS year's Super Bowl."