HOUSTON (AP) Benardrick McKinney is often overshadowed on a Houston defense filled with first-round picks.

But this season it's been hard to ignore the work of the linebacker, who leads the team and is tied for sixth in the NFL with 101 tackles, helping the defense remain the strongest part of the team despite the loss of J.J. Watt.

McKinney is in his second year in Houston after the Texans drafted him from Mississippi State in the second round. He had a solid rookie season, appearing in 14 games with 11 starts and finishing with 63 tackles.

This year he moved into a full-time role as starter and has thrived. He has four games with 10 or more tackles, including a career-high 16 against New England in Week 3. He also has four sacks to be the only player in the NFL this year - and just the third player in franchise history - with at least 100 tackles and four sacks in a season.

''He started last year growing and developing toward the last part of the season,'' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. ''He understood the defense. He understood how he has to play the game and puts himself in good position. He gets around the ball quite a bit.''

McKinney , who had 12 tackles last week against San Diego, believes his improvement this season is simply a product of him being more comfortable.

''Last year I was too worried about messing up and stuff ... it comes easy now,'' he said. ''When you understand the defense you don't have to think a lot, just go out there and play.''

That understanding has been helped by his relationship with linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, who had a distinguished 14-year NFL career and won three Super Bowls with the Patriots. McKinney raves about Vrabel and brings him up constantly when asked about his work this season.

''Coach Vrabel does an unbelievable job of just putting me in a great position to make plays,'' McKinney said. ''I'm just trying to help the defense out, force three-and-outs, get the defense lined up, play my style of football and just try to help us win games.''

Vrabel thinks McKinney's health this season is another reason for his success after he struggled through a knee injury and a concussion early last year that set him back a bit.

''When he came back, he started to really get comfortable playing in there,'' Vrabel said. ''We played well down the stretch defensively, and then he had a good offseason ... he's practicing. He's seeing every rep and he's taking the coaching. He's done a really good job for us.''

McKinney, a star quarterback and basketball player in high school, is also valuable to the Texans because of his size (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) and ability to help in the secondary.

''He has some coverage skill and that helps as well,'' Crennel said. ''We like big guys that can move and have some speed and some length, so he falls into that category.''

McKinney doesn't enjoy talking about himself, but did admit he isn't surprised by his success this season. That doesn't mean he isn't trying to improve.

''I know what I can do. I know I can be better,'' he said. ''There's a lot of things I can correct on the field. Just taking the coaching, watching film, flying around and playing with energy, that's my style of play, playing with energy, and it's helped me out a lot.''

McKinney and the Texans will try to snap a two-game skid when they travel to Green Bay on Sunday . The Texans remain atop the AFC South despite their recent losing, but know they need to get back on track quickly with Tennessee just one-half game back.

''If everybody just stays focused (and) does their job, we should be where we want to be at the end of the season,'' McKinney said.


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