The blood streamed down Brian Cushing's face, red streams matching the red accents on his Houston Texans’ linebacker uniform.
Sunday at Reliant Stadium was the third time this season Cushing needed his face bandaged. The bridge of his nose and his forehead have turned him into gold for game photographers, leaving them jumping to capture a colorful, old-school image.
“I notice a lot of people definitely like it, it’s gotten a lot of attention,” Cushing said. “I’d rather it just heal up right now. I’ve seen the pictures a lot. It definitely makes me look in character as an NFL linebacker. It fits the role.”
“That takes you back,” Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “He seems to fit that well. He doesn’t want to bleed, but that’s toughness. I mean the guy’s a football player.”
A bloody face that makes for a great picture is hardly all that’s making Cushing look the part of an intimidating defensive force this season. He’s drawn raves from coaches, teammates, opponents and analysts as a central piece in what currently ranks as the NFL’s top defense.
"Wade Phillips' influence and the 3-4 defense uses more of his athleticism and he can be more physical,” said Derrick Brooks, the former Buccaneers linebacker who’s now general manager of the Tampa Bay Arena Football League team. “I believed that the new defense would have a good impact on him from day one.
“He moves around very similar to the linebackers in Green Bay, Pittsburgh and with the Jets. He also has avoided being the story off the field. This speaks to maturity as a man. And when things are in order off the field, that makes playing much more enjoyable.”
I had long talks with Cushing and Phillips this week. They break down best if we look at the three areas that have made a big difference for Cushing nine games into the season.
The influence of the coordinator, as Brooks noted, can’t be overstated.
Cushing played some at middle linebacker for the Texans in their 4-3 last season after DeMeco Ryans went down with a torn Achilles tendon. The shift didn’t last long, and Houston moved him back outside.
When Phillips joined the team and took control of the defense, however, he reviewed the film and didn’t see Cushing inside as a bad thing for his new 3-4.
“When he played inside, I thought he had a lot of instinct to find the football and get to it, so that’s why we thought he would help us inside,” Phillips said. “If you put him on one side, they can always run away from him. It looked like to me that he would be a good inside backer.”
Cushing admitted he had his doubts. He always thought of himself as an outside guy. He’d been first to the ball playing from the outside forever.
But he had faith Phillips knew what he was doing and the coordinator told him the spot would allow him to flourish.
“He saw something in me on film and he’s just given me the ability to really go sideline to sideline, be around the ball all the time, make the calls, really control the defense,” Cushing said. “He thought I was the guy for it and it’s just worked out well.”
Phillips and linebackers coach Reggie Herring worked with Cushing on refining and polishing techniques: How to stay square, how to meet blockers, how to get off blocks, where his eyes need to be, how to read formations and anticipate based on them.
It was stuff that came easily and fit with those inherent instincts.
“Defense is recognition,” Phillips said. “Some guys have good eyes, they find the football well, they know when it’s cutting back and when it’s going outside. And he, of course, has the ability to make the plays when he gets there.
“Ten percent of players, maybe, have that. There are different degrees of it… Part of it is that his will to get to the football is superior. He’s a holy terror or a Tasmanian devil or whatever you want to call it. The guy’s going to get to the football. He’s rare in that category, he’s special. He can really get to the football as good as anybody I’ve been around.”
Cushing said he’s honored by that praise, especially considering the source.
“You hear so many things about an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense just taking on guards all day,” Cushing said. “His defense is way more dynamic than that. I’m really his primary blitzer. There are different jobs for me on every play.”
As many as 15 times a game, Cushing blitzes. That’s a huge number for any linebacker.
2. He’s practicing
Getting those blitzes and other jobs down requires a good practice week.
A lingering knee issue severely limited Cushing’s practice participation in his first two seasons. Coach Gary Kubiak spoke frequently about how Cushing was able to show up on Sundays. But clearly the linebacker could have been even better if he could have done more on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
He had surgery to repair a patella tendon issue after the 2010 season, an operation that was more serious than most people knew until the lockout ended and he still needed extra time to finish rehabilitation.
“Between last year and my rookie year, I really didn’t practice much at all,” Cushing said. “Last year I think I practiced maybe 40 percent of the time. My rookie year it was even less. I had an ongoing knee problem, I was finally able to get it fixed and it’s made a world of difference.
“It’s huge, it’s a major confidence boost when I go out there. I’ve been through the routine before, I know what to anticipate and expect. Practicing, being out there with my teammates every day and showing them that I’m ready, that’s what means the most to me.”
Phillips rates Cushing as a dedicated practice player who benefits, as they all do, from learning his responsibilities from the center of the field instead of the sideline with script in hand.
Players go wherever they need to for fuel, and Cushing often goes back at his four-game suspension at the start of his second season.
The league shelved him for four games for a 2009 violation of the NFL’s policy against performance enhancers. He staunchly denied taking anything, citing “Overtrained Athlete Syndrome.”
The Associated Press held an unprecedented re-vote on its 2009 defensive rookie of the year award, and he won it again.
He was roundly ripped for his defense of the positive test, including by me. Although he apparently didn’t make a list of specific people to hold grudges against, he did store up some strong feelings about how people reacted to what unfolded.
It a strange sort of way, he may be playing better now because of what happened to him then.
“There is a lot of extra motivation for me,” he said. “No matter how long I play, I’ll never forget about the things that people said about me. I know how completely untrue they are and I’m just going to prove it every single game for the rest of my career.
“I’ve always been a guy who’s played better by motivation and I think I’ve used a lot of anger to my advantage through my career. Being a little kid I could remember little things a kid said to me and I had a switch and was able to turn it on.”
It’s on now and the Texans are happy about that.
Sunday in Tampa, a big hit is likely to jostle his helmet and reopen his forehead cut or his nose or both.
There will be blood. Photographers and fans will love it.
“The bye week next week will be my best chance to get it scarred down as much as possible, but that’ll be ongoing for a long time, I believe,” Cushing said. “A hard enough hit, the helmet comes down and I’m back on the sideline, they’ve got to piece my nose back together.”