McKinney, Houston defense ready to step up against New England

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Benardrick McKinney gets uncomfortable when he’s talking to the media. On the field, however, it’s a totally different story.

The third-year player will be leading the defense and relay the plays when the Texans travel to New England to face off with the Patriots Sunday at noon. Brian Cushing wore the helmet with the radio last season but was suspended for the second time for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.

“It’s just something I like to do, something I enjoy doing,” McKinney said. “It’s second nature to me to just go out there and just have fun and talk and talk a lot of noise and just have fun. As long as I’m playing good for the team, as long as the coaches are satisfied with me, I’m happy with that.”

McKinney started 11 games during his rookie year, making 63 combined and 37 solo tackles. He improved during his sophomore season in the NFL, combining for 129 tackles with 79 solo tackles with five sacks and one forced fumble.

Though two games this season, the former second-round pick is averaging more than eight tackles a game. He had 11 tackles and forced a fumble in the season-opening loss to Jacksonville on Sept. 10.

“He’s pretty much started since he’s been healthy as a rookie,” Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel said. “He had a great year last year, we expect a lot out of him, just like we do all our players.”

Even Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been impressed with McKinney and his big-play ability. He even admitted that when he was coming out for the draft, New England did a lot of research into him.

“He’s a hard guy to deal with. You don’t get a lot of yards after contact with him. There’s not a lot of linebackers like him in this league, so he’s unique and the versatility that he brings – he has a lot of production in both the running game and the passing game.”

Houston’s defense has a ton of talent with McKinney, former first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, linebacker Whitney Mercilus, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, and two-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt.

The Texans had the best defense in the league last season, allowing 301.3 yards per game. They have gone 31 games since allowing a 300-yard passer.

Watt, who missed most of last season with a back injury, only had one tackle in Week 1 against the Jaguars but rebounded with five tackles Thursday against the Bengals. He said he felt more like himself after that performance.

Cushing has spent his entire nine-year career in Houston, totaling 421 tackles, eight interceptions, and nine forced fumbles in 100 career games. He’s eligible to return on Dec. 3 against the Titans.

This season’s second-round pick Zach Cunningham and Dylan Cole will see extended playing time in his absence and have already made a big impact. Cunningham is third on the team with 11 tackles, while Cole has five on the season.

“You don’t really ever try to replace guys, you try to get the best guys out there each week to win the game,” Vrabel said. “We never looked at it as we’re trying to replace (Cushing), we try to look at it as what happens is we move McKinney over, you put Cunningham in, Cole plays a little bit. That’s what we do.”

McKinney is honored to have been singled out by Belichick, who has won the Super Bowl five times with the Patriots.

But when asked about his leadership on the team, he said there are a lot of leaders on the Houston defense and reverted to a common saying in New England when it comes to winning: ‘Do Your Job.’

“We have a lot of great older guys on this team, it’s not just me,” McKinney said. “We pitch in together. I contribute to getting everybody lined up, getting the play call in. I’m just doing my role. Whatever coach wants me to do, I do it.”

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