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Houston Texans: McKinney and Cunningham form LB duo on the rise

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Jan 5, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack (25) is tackled by Houston Texans inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney (55) and inside linebacker Zach Cunningham (41) in the first half in a AFC Wild Card playoff football game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

As a whole, the Houston Texans have been held back by their defense in recent years. Despite enduring an abysmal stretch of offensive line play, the offense has been able to keep their heads above water. This is mainly due to superstars Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins.

Between J.J. Watt‘s extended periods missed due to injury (prior to last season), struggles upfront and constant shuffling in the secondary, the Texans haven’t been able to establish rapport. Now it’s likely Jadeveon Clowney could sit out the year as he’s been a no show at training camp. A unit which has faced continuous turnover and misfortune has managed to establish their solidity in the middle. The linebackers have remained the only constant since being paired together prior to the 2017 season.

Benardick McKinney and Zach Cunningham devise one of the league’s best linebacking tandems. Both second-round picks out of the SEC; they certainly represent the rugged brand visualized when you ponder the prestigious conference. McKinney is fresh off his Pro Bowl debut and it won’t be long before Cunningham joins him.

Benardrick McKinney the battering ram

At 6’4” and over 250 pounds, McKinney sports a long, bulky frame. He fits the downhill thumper prototype to a tee. With his body mass and speed moving to the ball carrier, McKinney packs a punch on impact. He plays with reckless abandonment and throws his body around like a battering ram. A truly punishing presence who neutralizes the run in the trenches. McKinney gives tremendous effort in pursuit and is more than capable as a run and chase backer.

The catalyst of the defense, McKinney relays the calls to the defense as the MIKE linebacker. A vocal leader, he always ensures his guys are set and in position. McKinney is an enforcer when playing along the line of scrimmage. He hovers the line and displays exceptional gap integrity. McKinney’s rare length provides him a wide play radius. Opposing linemen struggle to keep him in grasp as his long arms prove to be a trump card. He’s even shown ability to get to the quarterback on blitzes. Between 2016 and 2017 he combined for eight sacks.

In coverage, McKinney’s play is a bit uneven. He maneuvers at high game speed with a lot of enthusiasm. However, he lacks the short-area quickness and change of direction to match routes. He works better protecting against horizontal routes as he’s able to keep his man in front and close. Still, McKinney has refined his game against the pass since entering the league from Mississippi State. However, he’s often off the field in obvious passing situations.

It’s been an enjoyable career for McKinney thus far in Houston. He signed a five-year extension just over a year ago then was selected to his first Pro Bowl. He’s one of only two drafted Texans since 2015 to earn a Pro Bowl appearance. Locked up long-term, McKinney is a guaranteed mainstay for Houston. His impact on the team goes further than physical skills. The way he leads the defense and calls the shots is unparalleled. McKinney is one of the most underrated linebackers in the game as he looks to build off a career year.

Texans LB Benardrick McKinney has to be among the most underrated at the position. He earned his Pro Bowl debut this past year as a battering ram operating downfield with his speed, body mass, and reckless abandon. Elite explosion scores and length highlight an impressive profile.

Zach Cunningham, the craftsman

Zach Cunningham great here diagnosing and getting downhill.


Overshadowed by Watson in the 2017 NFL Draft, many forget Cunningham was selected with Houston’s very next pick. The third-year linebacker is a primary breakout candidate for the Texans this year. After two seasons of good, productive play, Cunningham looks to elevate his play in the tell-all third year. His residence in Houston’s defense since being drafted can’t be overstated.

Coming out of Vanderbilt, Cunningham was most notable for his dominance against the run. His excellent field vision could be his best trait. He takes clean angles to the ball and navigates through congestion well. Cunningham flows with the play then pounces on the ball carrier when he finds the slightest of openings. He works well laterally and shuffles along the line of scrimmage with the quickness to poke in and out of gaps. Cunningham operates with more finesse, whereas McKinney is more power and speed.

Serving as Houston’s nickel backer, he’s improved substantially in coverage since his college days. Especially as a rookie to 2018. Often designated to carry tight ends over the middle and pick up running backs out of the backfield, Cunningham is a tranquil presence guarding the second level against the pass. He sits patient back in his zone and takes on opponents with leverage and anticipation.

Cunningham is one of the best young, up and coming linebackers in the NFL. Primarily known for his run-stopping, he’s evolved into a complete linebacker and an integral piece on Houston’s defense. Over his first two seasons in the league, Cunningham has averaged nearly 100 total tackles and has compiled eight tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and 11 pass deflections. The production has been there for Cunningham, but he needs to raise the bar a bit before he gets an invite to Orlando. It shouldn’t be much longer.

Pick 6 started with pressure from Clowney, ended with a beautiful 1-hand INT by Zach Cunningham:

The Texans tandem injects needed stability on defense

The tandem of McKinney and Cunningham provides much-needed stability for the Texans defense. It’s unclear whether Clowney will ever suit up in the blue and red again. The secondary has played musical chairs for each of the past few offseasons. Justin Reid brings really the only security they have on the backend after this year. Then you have to hope Watt can stay healthy for another 16 game season.

A lot of similarities lie within the linebackers. As we know, they were both second-round picks hailing from the SEC. They both posted impressive explosion scores at their respective Combines and possess elite length at the position. They both received rave reviews regarding their prominence as run defenders throughout their respective draft processes. They’re both holiday season babies if you want to take it that far.

McKinney is the better straight-line mover while Cunningham possesses triumphant movement skills. Both linebackers attack the ball and are forceful operating downhill. Neither were known for their coverage skills coming out. However, they’ve both displayed progression in that area and Cunningham has developed at an encouraging pace.

Houston’s defense has ranked sub 20 in terms of yards against in three of the past four seasons. The play of McKinney and Cunningham will be pivotal as Houston looks to return to the postseason. Luckily they enter their third year playing alongside each other and have an established rapport at this point. As McKinney builds on a Pro Bowl year and Cunningham continues to strive for that level, the Texans field one of the best LB tandems in the NFL.

Jonathan Valencia is a writer for PFN covering the Houston Texans and Pac-12 NFL Draft. You can find him on Twitter @JonValenciaPFN.

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