Ask any defensive coordinator in the NFL what it takes to build a championship unit and he'll stress the importance of being strong down the middle.
This is nothing new. The premise of featuring blue chip players at defensive tackle, middle linebacker and free safety is rooted in the old school philosophy of stopping the run at all costs. Despite the NFL's evolution into a passing league, it's still very necessary to have playmakers between the hashes, particularly at inside linebacker.
In looking at two of the top defenses from a season ago, San Francisco and Houston, it's not a coincidence that both units feature dominant impact players in the middle. Patrick Willis and Brian Cushing are not only ultra-productive playmakers, but also possess the versatility coaches covet from a defensive centerpiece.
Willis, entering his sixth season, has been an All-Pro performer since stepping into the NFL after being selected with the 11th pick of the 2007 draft. He is an explosive combination of athleticism and violence, and his dominance between the hashes sparks the 49ers' defense. Willis has tallied 125-plus tackles in four of his five seasons, while amassing 17 career sacks, five interceptions and 12 forced fumbles. Although Willis' production took a dip last season due to an injury and a role change within the scheme, there is no doubt about his status as the 49ers' marquee defensive player.
Cushing, a fourth-year pro, is just as productive as the monster in the middle of the Texans' defense. The 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year has surpassed the 110-tackle mark in two of his three seasons, while also tallying 9.5 sacks, six interceptions and five forced fumbles. He's coming off a fine season with 114 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles as the designated playmaker for the NFL's second-ranked defense.
It's easy to assume Willis would easily trump Cushing in any comparison, but when we break down their football-specific traits, it's a lot closer than it initially appears. Let's break it down by five categories.
Willis was one of the outstanding performers at the 2007 NFL Scouting Combine prior to entering the draft, and he remains one of most explosive defenders in the game today. His combination of speed, acceleration and burst is unrivaled at the position, allowing him to routinely make plays as a sideline-to-sideline chaser from the middle of the field. Although Willis is certainly at his best when allowed to run unimpeded to the ball carrier, he also shows the strength and power to overwhelm blockers. Willis stones blockers in the hole with powerful forearm shivers or shoulder attacks, and his ability to unload with such ferocity is a testament to his lower-body explosiveness.
Cushing is not quite the athlete of Willis, but he is an impactful player between the hashes. He shows exceptional speed, quickness and burst chasing down runners from behind, and his ability to flow through traffic is impressive to watch. Cushing also displays brute strength and power when uncoiling on blockers in the hole. He strikes lead blockers with powerful two-hand jams, but shows the upper-body strength to quickly shed and disengage at the point of attack. Few in the league are as skilled at working through contact to get to runners. Cushing's combination of strength and agility makes him difficult to contain on the interior.
Stopping the run is the priority of every interior defender, and Willis excels in this aspect. He is an instinctive playmaker with a strong nose for the ball. Willis quickly diagnoses running plays by keying on the action of the guards, and then attacks the line of scrimmage with a burst that overwhelms his assigned blocker. His combination of elusiveness and aggressiveness results in several big hits in the hole, which discourages the offense from running up the middle. As a tackler, Willis is a square hitter with the strength and power to stop runners dead in their tracks. He rarely falls backwards after making initial contact.
Cushing is a vicious hitter with tremendous instincts and awareness. He has a great feel for diagnosing plays immediately after the snap, and then finds a way to work through traffic to get to the ball. Although he will occasionally get engulfed on the interior by big blockers, Cushing's ability to slip past opponents with agility and quickness makes him a disruptive force in the middle.
Willis has been featured as the 49ers' designated blitzing linebacker in the past, but he was utilized more in coverage a season ago. He rarely attacked the pocket on A-gap blitzes, but was effective disrupting the timing of the passing game when incorporated into the rush. Willis is too powerful and explosive for running backs assigned to block him in pass protection. Although the 49ers have scaled back on his rushes due to the effectiveness of their front line, Willis is a tremendous asset as an extra rusher.
Upon taking the job as the Texans' defensive coordinator last year, Wade Phillips quickly identified Cushing as his most disruptive defender and capitalized on the linebacker's unique skills by frequently incorporating him into the pass rush. Cushing repeatedly attacked the line of scrimmage on A- and B-gap blitzes, with Phillips surrounding him with overload pressure (three or more defenders attacking from one side to outnumber the pass protection). In the video clip to the right, it was the combination of scheme and skill that freed Cushing for a sack on the Indianapolis Colts' Dan Orlovsky. With Phillips willing to create opportunities for Cushing through play design, the Texans' star defender will continue to generate big plays as a blitzer.
The NFL's aerial acrobatics these days require top linebackers to possess athleticism and cover skills if they are to stay on the field in all situations. Inside linebackers, in particular, must be able to shadow running backs and tight ends between the hashes without assistance from safeties. Willis is one of the best in the business at sticking with receivers in his area, and the 49ers are not afraid to leave him isolated with talented playmakers in space. Willis rewards the team's faith in him by frequently getting his hands on the ball. Last season, he tallied a remarkable 12 pass breakups and added an interception (video to your right). Those totals are exceptional for any defender, particularly an interior defender asked to match up with shifty receivers in space.
Cushing is also a disruptive defender in coverage. He is an impressive ball hawk at 248 pounds, relying on outstanding instincts and awareness. He is at his best when playing zone coverage where he can key on the quarterback's eyes and anticipate where the ball is going. Cushing also displays solid skills in man coverage by effectively mirroring running backs on short and intermediate routes. He stays attached to the inside hip and refuses to give receivers space. Although he will occasionally struggle with shifty route runners from the backfield, Cushing's guile and competitiveness produce positive results on most downs.
The best defenders in the NFL have a knack for creating turnovers and splash plays. Willis certainly fits the bill with 17 sacks and 17 takeaways (five interceptions and 12 forced fumbles) in five seasons. Although some of his production is the byproduct of good fortune, Willis creates his own luck by aggressively attacking the ball at every opportunity. He rakes at the ball repeatedly after making tackles and is one of the best defenders in the league at punching the ball out from behind. His relentlessness in going after the ball is exactly what defensive coaches preach to players on a daily basis.
Cushing's also extremely disruptive, with 9.5 sacks, six interceptions and five forced fumbles in his three-year career. He has a tremendous feel for the game, which consistently places him around the ball in big moments. In addition, Cushing's competitiveness and aggression allows him to produce negative plays on a consistent basis. From pivotal sacks to game-changing turnovers, Cushing is a ball magnet who routinely delivers big plays at critical moments.
It's hard to go wrong in this debate, due to the spectacular skills of both defenders, but the consistent production of Willis gives him a slight nod. Willis remains the gold standard at the position -- he's the player most defensive coordinators would choose to build around. Although Cushing is closing the gap, he needs another strong season to challenge Willis as the top choice at the position.
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