Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

10 Nov 2009

Brian Cushing, Rookie of the Year

Brian Cushing of Houston is the Defensive Rookie of the Year. I'm a big fan of Aaron Curry, and Ray Maualuga is a big part of Cincinnati's surprise season, but honestly, it isn't close, and there aren't any offensive rookies who can match Cushing either.

I just ran new updated individual defense numbers through Week 9, and Cushing leads the NFL with 86 defensive plays. He's second in percentage of his own team's defensive plays, behind Atlanta's Curtis Lofton, and they are the only two defenders in the league who have been in on over 20 percent of their team's defensive plays.

Now, I know what you are saying... it isn't strange for a rookie linebacker to be near the top of the league in tackles. Didn't Cushing's teammate DeMeco Ryans do it just a couple years ago? Sure, that's true... but that's usually true about middle linebackers. Cushing is playing on the outside. And he's not making these plays at Ryans' expense. Ryans has 69 plays, which is 16 percent of Houston's total and still ranks eighth in the NFL. Their combination of being in on 36.9 percent of plays is the highest rate in the league for teammates, with Lofton and Eric Coleman second at 36.4 percent and Carolina's Jon Beason and Thomas Davis third at 33.5 percent.

Cushing isn't just making lots of plays. He's making important plays. Cushing leads the NFL with 20 Defeats. He has eight passes defensed, while no other linebacker has more than five. He's made his average run tackle after a gain of just 2.9 yards, which isn't among the league leaders but is above average for 4-3 outside linebackers.

The Houston defense has a lot of problems. The pass rush gets near the quarterback, but can't take him down -- the Texans are high in hits and low in sacks. The secondary is lousy, and Dunta Robinson still hasn't quite found his mojo since missing much of last year with an ACL injury. Linebacker is the only position where the Houston defense can match the Houston offense, thanks to the 2006 and (almost guaranteed) 2009 Defensive Rookies of the Year.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 10 Nov 2009

48 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2009, 5:26pm by dk240t

Comments

1
by Dice :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 1:45pm

Have to admit, I was wrong on Cushing. Everything about him screamed 'roids to me, and he'd be exposed once he got to the pros. I figured he'd make some splashy plays here and there but not be a real factor, and maybe a liability in the passing game. Good for Houston, getting a great player like him.

2
by dryheat :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 1:47pm

Now, I know what you are saying... it isn't strange for a rookie linebacker to be near the top of the league in tackles.

No. What I'm saying is... isn't it strange to proclaim a DROY after half a season?

3
by dedkrikit (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 1:55pm

No love for Percy Harvin? Doesn't he warrant a mention?

4
by Dice :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 2:01pm

Harvin plays defense? NM, I see the headline dropped the Defensive.

5
by Doug Farrar :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 2:06pm

Having written him up a couple weeks ago, and having seen Aaron Curry every week, I completely agree. Cushing could run away with this award by season's end. He's been spectacular.

6
by Tim (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 2:28pm

Interesting fact: Cushing has the same trainer as Miles Austin.

7
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 2:39pm

No knock on Cushing, who I have barely seen play, but let it be noted that the Vikings were about the worst on special teams last year, and are among the best this year, and Harvin is a huge reason why. Going fron worst to best on special teams makes a huge difference in terms of increasing the odds of a team winning games. Throw in the big plays Harvin has made as a receiver, and it isn't quite as easy to claim that someone else has been a better rookie.

8
by C (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 2:40pm

USC linebacking from a couple of years ago

MLB: Ray Ma
ROLB: Cushing
LOLB: Keit Rivers
Bench: Matthews Jr.

That's nasty.

9
by Joel (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 2:58pm

How about some love for Jerraud Powers, the rookie CB for Indy? I know he doesn't have ridiculous stats, but he's been thrust into starting at corner since Week 3 for the defense that's allowed the fewest points in the league. Take him off that team, with the injuries to Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden, and they probably lose at least a couple games they've won.

26
by Bobman :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 1:03am

I agree on Powers, but he'll need a few signature plays, preferably on national TV, if he's not going to be a stat machine. Stoning Maroney at the goal line on 4th and 1. Ripping an INT out of Moss's hands a pick six or some more high profie fumble recoveries.

If this team goes 14-2 or better and is carried by their D (particularly pass D), which has been a pretty big unreported story the past two years, someone should get recognition. Sanders is recuperating. Jackson and Hayden have been non-factors. They're down one starting LB now. The DL has been good, but the rookie(s) in the D backfield (including UDFA Lacey) should get some acclaim.

33
by Lee (not verified) :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 12:15pm

Dude you have Peyton Manning... PUH-LEEEEEZZZZZEEEEE?!?!?!

10
by ParaPunk :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 3:48pm

I think alot of people would argue for Jarius Byrd at this point since he was an insane amount of picks (7 in the last 4 games). But yeah, I think Cushing is the right pick.

12
by dryheat :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 4:39pm

Byrd was the guy I had in mind too. I think Delmas could also lift himself into conversation.

28
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 5:09am

As a Texans fan I've obviously seen a lot more of Cushing than of Byrd this season, and can hardly claim to be unbiased. However, I would say that at least two of Byrd's picks - the two of Schaub - did not have a whole lot to do with good play by Byrd. On one he was nowhere near anyone, but Schaub overthrew the receiver (Daniels, I think) so horrifically that it went straight to Byrd five or more yards downfield of him. On the other Schaub threw a little behind Andre Johnson, who tipped the ball to Byrd. Had the pass hit Johnson in stride and been caught, I doubt Byrd would have been in position to make the tackle; certainly he was not placed to make a play on the ball. Despite Schaub's good numbers this season, he's thrown some seriously ugly interceptions.

11
by Anonymous333 (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 4:11pm

James Laurinaitis deserves to be mentioned in this article. He has been a steady player on the Rams and probably the only bright spot of that defense. He has been solid in coverages situations with 2 ints and a handful of pass deflections as well as being a strong tackler in the middle of the field. He doens't have sacks or fumbles mainly because he is generally doesn't blitz or crash the line. Not to mention JL has been asked to run a defense and be the play caller, that is a big deal IMO.

While i would agree Cushing is the DROY right now - if Laurinaitis finishes strong he would be right up there with Cushing.

Additionally Jarrius Byrd - kid is special, and is always around the ball. If he leads the league in interceptions going forward I see no way how he doesnt win the award.

13
by Dan :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 5:53pm

Pro Football Focus (which has its own game charting project, which scores each player on every play) rates Cushing as the best 4-3 OLB in the NFL, and has him in the top 5 in pass rushing, pass coverage, and run defense.

21
by dmb :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 10:12pm

Thanks for the link; even if I'm a little unsure of the criteria they use, this is easily the most interesting football-related link I've clicked in quite some time.

14
by Dice :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 6:17pm

I'm not feeling Byrd for DROY. He has a lot of picks, but doesn't seem to have as complete a game as what Cushing's writeup implies. Not against the idea, and he's probably more valuable to the Bills than Cushing is to the Texans, but I need to see more out of Byrd.

Without context, looking at ProFootballFocus' safety numbers, Byrd rates at #16. Reed Doughty!? ranks a surprising #4. Unlike probably nearly everyone else here, I'm not a stat guy(although I do like the idea of 'smarter' stats), but I'd have to take a good look at how they come to these. They also poo poo the idea that Byrd is a shoo in at this point.

16
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 6:35pm

I'm not liking a lot of what I see on there.

I mean, Mushin Muhammed better than Randy Moss?

17
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 6:54pm

Still though, looking at their player participation by play, if you could cross reference that with DVOA, you could do some really cool stuff, like DVOA by positional grouping and such.

24
by SlantNGo (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 11:02pm

That's entirely due to Muhsin's blocking of course, which rates as a 5.2 (easily the best in the league by their account) while his receiving is -0.3. Moss on the other hand is 2.0 receiving.

22
by dmb :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 10:15pm

I don't think Doughty is the fourth-best safety in the league, but he's played pretty darn well this year, particularly against the run. It hasn't exactly been a secret that he's good as the eighth guy in the box for runs but limited in coverage; Blache and co. have just done a good job this year of playing to his strengths and hiding his weaknesses.

15
by DrewTS (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 6:31pm

Cushing is really good, and his grandpa was great as Grand Moff Tarkin.

27
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 4:55am

Grand Moff Tarkin nothing: check him out as the Bad Baron in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, one of the two actually good movies Hammer made. Now that is some All-Pro villainy.

He lives in Whitstable, by the way.

18
by Admorish (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 7:08pm

Glad to see Cushing get the notice, and I'm glad to see the numbers back up what I'm seeing every week" Brian Cushing is an All-Pro OLB through 1/2 the year.

Say what you will about Houston and it's staff - they are filling the team with talent through the draft. The past few years are full of many, many hits. Eventually this is going to bring results. And someday, damnit, we're going to beat Indy in Indy.

29
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 5:16am

Seconded. I expected Cushing to be pretty good against the run, but his all around play has been frankly astonishing - certainly better than Ryans in his DROY rookie season, and arguably better than Ryans this year (and Ryans is having a great year). The Texans defense still has some serious issues (though I think the pass rush may improve dramatically if and when Williams gets properly healthy) but given the age and talent level of the key personnel, it's almost hard to see it not developing into an elite unit at some point. "Trade up for Eric Berry" gets my vote as far as 2010 draft strategy is concerned.

19
by GnomeChumpsky (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 7:31pm

Could this partially be a function of a terrible defensive line forcing linebackers to make most of the plays?

20
by Admorish (not verified) :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 9:10pm

That's a good question, in my opinion, it could be, but isn't. The sheer number of "defeats" is a clue there. He's made a ton of plays behind the line, intercepted balls, covered players, and simply flown to the tackle.

Also, the Texan defense is, as I see it, designed to let the LBs make plays. And the defense, while showing fairly badly, has I think been burned more than they've been beaten. Generally they're pretty good, then they cough up a huge, often fatal, play.

I heard one stat, and I can't verify, that they were a league leader in 3-and-Outs.

This is why my hometown team frustrates me - (pardon the intuition) I feel like they are really a whisper away from being an elite team. It's visible, but always elusive.

45
by Marcumzilla :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 3:53pm

"I heard one stat, and I can't verify, that they were a league leader in 3-and-Outs."

I can't give a link either, but I'll second this - it was definitely said multiple times during this past Sunday's game with Indy.

23
by Key19 :: Tue, 11/10/2009 - 10:45pm

Would love to watch Cushing play. Oh wait, I have NFL Game Rewind! I'm in luck.

That said, if the Bucs finish 5-11 I think Josh Freeman probably ends up taking the award.

25
by Illmatic74 :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 12:47am

They wouldn't be up for the same award.

30
by bmerryman :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 6:40am

Cushing passes the eyeball test but best 4-3 outside linebacker, c'mon. I watched him quite a bit against the Colts and he looked good. He struggled to cover Dallas Clark but that's to be expected of any linebacker.

31
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 7:35am

I don't think he's as good as Lance Briggs (the one linebacker in the league who probably could cover Dallas Clark), but I can't think of anyone else at the position who's clearly better. You didn't really see him at his best, because the Colts are an emphatically pass-first single back team, and while Cushing's a good all rounder his greatest strength is in murdering power running teams at the point of attack. His most impressive game was probably @CIN.

32
by Paul A (not verified) :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 8:31am

Orakpo and his 5.5 sacks deserve a mention.

34
by dmb :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 1:08pm

Orakpo has played reasonably well, but it's been very clear that he's still not comfortable in coverage. This shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that he's making a transition from a position where he didn't have that sort of responsibility -- and he's definitely looked better in space than some Redskins fans probably feared. Even so, if the talk of Cushing is accurate (I haven't really seen him play much, but there's an awful lot of corroboration on the quality of his play), then Cushing is way ahead of Orakpo in terms of overall performance.

As for the sacks, it's also worth mentioning that he has the benefit of playing with Albert Haynesworth and Andre Carter.

35
by Dice :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 1:45pm

Orakpo might be more in the running if he wasn't splitting time in his DE/LB role. Even so, enough sacks could conceivably propel him into DROY, same as Byrd's picks. They're flashy plays and easy stat lines.

36
by Michael Kolodzy (not verified) :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 1:52pm

Aaron I really enjoyed your article and the quality of posts made by your readers. I have to admit every seems much more intelligent than the average ESPN.com reader; which is a huge breath of relief.

For those who haven't seen Cushing this season, he's everything they claim and more. I find myself a very strong disliker of USC, in fact they compare with the worst teams in sports for me; and so I was the first person to really not enjoy the Cushing draft pick, I was more hoping for an elite corner or Safety. But since day 1 Cushing has been mentioned by everyone, in every paper and when you watch him play, it's very clear the boy (I'm 21 and he's barely a year older than I am) loves the game and loves to hit people.

If it can be found on the internet, I highly recommend watching the play where Cushing had the tip and interception to himself in Buffalo. He was lined up on the Under side, almost on the line and appeared to be blitzing coming off the edge. He immediately read pass and pulled behind the DE and moved into a middle zone coverage and was right there when the ball was thrown. Great play by a greater player. LOVE DEFENSIVE TEXAS FOOTBALL! (Hook 'Em and Go Texans!)

37
by Anonymous2323432 (not verified) :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 2:08pm

Like the writer said, plays at important times. Yes, Byrd had two picks. And the Bills still lost. Cushing had a pick to close the game, as well as the game winning INT earlier in the season to beat the Bengals. Not to mention, 2 forced fumbles, or was it 3?

All in all, he has like 7 turnovers, which equals Byrd, who doesn't have the tackles and sacks to boot.

38
by alexbond :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 2:10pm

I watched NFL replay last night of Colts-Texans and watched Cushing every play he was on the field after reading this. The guy is legit. Yeah, he was a step behind Dallas every play, but who isn't? He was making plays in the run game, and even on plays away from him which he wasn't involved in, he was always playing through the whistle, getting ready to tackle the ball carrier in case he broke through two tackles or some other Chris Johnson/MJD shit. He seemed like the best player on the defensive side of the ball.

39
by RickKilling (not verified) :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 2:12pm

I remember the pre-draft commercial that came out featuring Cushing and Crabtree.
Cushing's sections showed him grunting gray sweat in a beatdown jersey gym. Blue collar the all the way, the portrayal of a kid willing to work his way to greatness.
Crabtree's sections were mostly him standing around talking to Deion and Jerry. I think I counted at least five of those handshake/shoulder bump greetings. The scenes may even have been tinted prima donna pink.

To date neither player has done much to dispel that early glimpse into their personalities.

40
by John (not verified) :: Wed, 11/11/2009 - 8:44pm

Which is a more "important" statistic for a linebacker's performance; stops (rate), defeats, or avg yds allowed on either the run or pass?

Stop rate: percentage of plays where an offensive play(er) is stopped before 45% of yrds needed for a 1st down, 60% of yrds needed for a 2nd down, and 100% for yrds needed for 3rd/4th downs?

Why are those percentages deemed as markers for defensive performance?

Thanks

42
by DrewTS (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 11:36am

Those are the percentages used to define a "successful" play in the DVOA and DYAR metric. That doesn't really answer your question, but it does tie the stop rate stat back to other stats in the site.

As for why those percentages were chosen, someone else might have to chime in. I believe they tried different percentages in those formulas, and these came out with the best correlation between DVOA and overall winning percentage. I do remember once upon a time that the 45% used to be 40% and it got changed based on some analysis that was done. Intuitively, the percentages do make some sense, particularly the idea that a play on 3rd or 4th down is not really a "success" unless it generates a new set of downs.

43
by tuluse :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 11:44am

The percentages come from The Hidden Game of Football.

41
by bubqr :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 5:19am

His insane madden ratings are the proof that he should be DROY, no question.

44
by USC4ever (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:54pm

That's why player development at USC is the best! Com-Pete! Everyday, all day long. Fight on!

46
by bhyde (not verified) :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 1:04am

It is also worth noting that Cushing is playing at a consistently high level despite not playing any preseason games because of a knee injury and playing for most of this season with a foot injury. Imagine how good he would be if he had the preseason experience and two healthy feet...scary!

47
by outside observer (not verified) :: Sun, 11/22/2009 - 11:40pm

Cushing is playing better in the NFL than he played at USC, where he was an All American. He looks like a 5 year pro in his rookie year. He was an absolute steal at #15. Many thought he would go to Buffalo at #10 because it was close to home. Instead the Bills took Maybin who has something like 60 less tackels than Cushing at this point. So glad Cushing went to Houston.

48
by dk240t :: Thu, 12/17/2009 - 5:26pm

Cushing is quite likely already the best player on the Texans defense. Now that this season is a bust for their playoff hopes and unlikely to yield the franchise's first winning season, I certainly hope he doesn't have the sophomore slump that seemingly every good Texans rookie defender of late has had (I'm thinking Fred Bennett and Amobi Okoye primarily).

I'm thinking he won't.