Texans look to young LBs as injuries mount
HOUSTON (AP) — Injuries have left the Houston Texans thin at linebacker.
With star Brian Cushing (knee) out for the season and starter Brooks Reed out indefinitely with a groin injury, young players Whitney Mercilus and Darryl Sharpton will be counted on to keep the defense rolling as the Texans (10-1) play for postseason positioning.
“How far we go, how well we play, how we hang on here and keep working has a lot to do with how they play,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “We have confidence in them.”
Adding to the trouble, inside linebacker Bradie James, who has started every game for Houston this season, is day to day with a hamstring injury.
“That’s the way this game is,” said James, a 10-year veteran. “I’ve never been around a team that had that many injuries in one position like we’ve had this year. But we’re big boys. That’s the NFL. Guys will step up, I’m sure.”
Sharpton missed the first nine games of the season after tearing his right quadriceps in October 2011. He had seven tackles against Chicago before starting against Detroit and finishing with six.
Kubiak has been impressed with Sharpton’s effort, but said he and the other young guys have some things they need to work on this week.
“We need to eliminate some mistakes we made last week,” Kubiak said. “We’re trying to really isolate those guys. Sharpton’s getting a ton of practice.”
Tim Dobbins missed last week’s game after injuring his left shoulder against the Bears. He is practicing again, and his return should be a boost to the group. Dobbins has started four games in Cushing’s old spot since he was injured Oct. 8.
The Texans have turned in two of their worst defensive performances of the season in the past two weeks, both overtime wins by Houston. They have allowed 983 yards and 68 points in the past two games, after yielding just 28 points in their previous three games combined.
The Texans will try to shore up the unit by putting rookie first-round pick Mercilus in at starter on the weak side this week, and moving Connor Barwin from the weak side to the strong side to fill in for Reed.
The 6-foot-4, 254-pound Mercilus was a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme at Illinois but has moved to outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 alignment. He has appeared in each game this season, but his first start will come this week.
He has 17 tackles, has forced two fumbles and has defended one pass this season. His teammates have seen enough of him to believe that he will fill in just fine as a starter.
“I’m fully confident in Whitney,” Reed said. “He works very hard and now he’s going to get his chance to show why we drafted him in the first round. I think it will be fun to watch to see what he can do.”
Kubiak liked what he saw from Mercilus against the Lions and said he is improving each week.
“Whitney did some good things in the game,” Kubiak said. “He has played his best football for us the past month and we need that to continue.”
The injuries to Houston’s linebackers are also taking a toll on the Texans’ special teams. Mercilus has played virtually every play on special teams this season, and Sharpton and fellow linebackers Bryan Braman and Barrett Ruud are also key contributors to the group.
Now that Mercilus and Sharpton are moving into starting roles, Kubiak said he’ll have to shuffle some things around to make sure they aren’t playing too much.
By KRISTIE RIEKEN, AP Sports Writer