HOUSTON -- Against the Seahawks, a dramatic shift occurred when Brian Cushing left the game.
Prior to that point, it had been a tremendous defensive effort by the Texans, who had only allowed three points. They'd held Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in check and kept the Seahawks running game from doing too much damage.
Then Cushing suffered a concussion and things changed.
After the game his fellow defensive player said they were so locked in they didn't realize that Cushing was gone. But as Darryl Sharpton replaced him, there was a significant dropoff in both ability and awareness at the position. Not immediately, but eventually the Seahawks took advantage of his departure, scoring their only offensive touchdown of the game on a 98-yard drive.
This season, Cushing has made more run stops (18) than any other player in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. J.J. Watt ranks third with 15. Cushing is responsible for two of the Texans' three forced turnovers so far this season.
And his impact can be measured even better by looking at numbers from last season before and after his season-ending injury in Week 5. In the first five games of last season, the Texans allowed 275.6 yards per game, 190.2 passing yards per game, 16 first downs per game, 14.6 points per game and a third-down conversion percentage of 25.8.
In the final 13 (including the playoffs), they allowed 66.6 more yards per game, 49.3 more passing yards per game, 3.1 more first downs per game, 9.4 more points per game and a third-down conversion percentage that was 9.1 higher than it was with Cushing playing.
And it wasn't just that the Texans were facing better quarterbacks. While Houston faced Tom Brady twice and Aaron Rodgers once in the latter portion, they also gave up 354 yards and four touchdowns to Chad Henne.
It's hard to say whether or not Cushing is the most critical player on the Texans' defense or if it's Watt. We've seen Watt without Cushing, but we haven't seen Cushing without Watt in the past season and a quarter. But the data clearly shows that this middle linebacker is worth all the billions of pennies the Texans' guaranteed him.