Could Cushing's absence derail Houston?

Brian Cushing, who leads the Texans with 24 tackles, is the heart of the Houston defense. Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger/US Presswire

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J -- This is how the Houston Texans' season might unravel.

Not from an upset by a team like the New York Jets, who stuck around but couldn’t pull it off Monday night and ultimately falling to Houston 23-17. But with a long-term injury to an indispensable player.

At 5-0 after a Monday Night Football win over the Jets at MetLife Stadium, the Texans turn to face back-to-back home games against Green Bay and Baltimore. The Packers and Ravens are the biggest challenges the Texans will have faced yet.

And it appears they’ll do it without inside linebacker Brian Cushing.

Cushing was knocked out of the game with a left knee injury in the second quarter. He chased a run play from across the field and got taken down by a low, late block from New York left guard Matt Slauson.

He lay on the turf for a while, then went off the field under his own power. Slow, but not super slow. He didn’t appear to be in great pain. He went to the locker room and didn’t re-emerge.

But he’s a tough guy and we’ve seen guys with serious knee injuries look fine. We’ve seen guys barely able to walk off who wound up with only a bruise.

The Houston Chronicle’s reporting it looks like a torn ACL but Cushing and the team won’t know for sure until an MRI on Tuesday.

The New Jersey native had family at the game and wasn’t in the postgame locker room. Virtually everyone who was in there spoke about him. Left tackle Duane Brown and safety Danieal Manning didn’t provide cause for optimism, either.

“From the little bit of examining they did, they don’t think it’s good,” Brown said.

“I hate that he went down like that,” Manning said. “… I saw Cush with the crutches and stuff, but I didn’t want to ask him.”

“I wouldn’t want to lose him. I wouldn’t want to lose him at all for any reason. He’s so valuable to this team in so many ways. Just his presence alone. Opposing teams won’t, and don’t, do certain plays. And we do a lot of plays formulated around Cush. It’s a whole team, but you can tell, so many things that we do are to let our Beast play.”

That, in turn, has a trickle down effect for the whole defense. Things will get tighter and more difficult for others while he’s missing.

Teams formulate plans to block him because he’s a dangerous rusher. The Texans have a lot of other dangerous rushers, however. They don’t have a lot of other inside linebackers who can run and cover the way Cushing can, and when he’s absent it’s sure to be a spot that gets targeted.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips loves Cushing as much as anyone. But he jumped to point out that the Texans had a great deal of defensive success against the Jets after the linebacker left the field. Tim Dobbins took Cushing’s spot in the base personnel, and Bradie James stayed on the field to assume Cushing’s role in the nickel package.

The drop off from Cushing to those guys is more significant than it is from any of the Texans other stars to their backups.

As reporters approached Dobbins to ask about his expanded role with Cushing gone, Dobbins repeatedly shook his head and said he didn’t really want to talk about it.

“I’m a small fry in this world,” he said. “We didn’t know what’s wrong with him, if he’s going to be out or not. I stay ready so I don’t ever need to get ready.”

Overhearing that, starting outside linebacker Connor Barwin told Dobbins: “Get used to it, buddy. Wait until you get 10 penalties next week.”

I didn’t find a Texan who got a clean look at Slauson’s block. I suspect they won’t like it. I’m not sure, though, that it was not beyond the bounds of fair play. The offensive lineman cut a rangy player to keep him from going and potentially getting involved in a tackle.

“I can’t comment on the play,” J.J. Watt said. “Hopefully it was a legal play."

As to where Cushing would rank on a ballot of the most indispensible players on the team …

“You want Brian Cushing on your defense and when he’s not out there it makes a difference,” Watt said. “But like you saw last year, like you’ve seen all along with this team, we’re going to find a way to win football games.

“We’re not going to hang our head. We’re going to go out there and win games for Cush. We’re not going to let this slow us down.”