With the season soon to be half over for the Bills and Texans as they meet here in Week 8 there are a couple of rookies in today's game that are making a strong case for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Bills FS Jairus Byrd and Texans LB Brian Cushing have both hit the ground running and been productive in their short time on an NFL field.
Byrd was Buffalo's first of two second-round picks taken 42nd overall by the Bills. And though a late final exam schedule and sports hernia surgery kept him out of all the spring workouts and more than half of training camp the rookie hasn't missed a beat.
The Oregon product is second in the NFL and leads all rookies in interceptions with five in five starts thus far this season, something that hasn't been done by an NFL rookie since Dec. 1990 (Mark Carrier, Chicago).
"Really the veterans and the other 10 guys on the field have made my job a lot easier with the pass rush we have had and in terms of how they have helped me prepare for the game and even during the games they will tell me what to look for," said Byrd. "A lot of credit goes to them."
Three of Byrd's last four interceptions have been turned into touchdowns by Buffalo's offense and helped propel the Bills to two straight wins.
"It starts with his natural ability because he applies himself and the coaches have done a nice job of getting him ready," said head coach Dick Jauron. "No one is making those plays except Jairus. It's the same thing with any other player on the field. They're out there making the play. Some of the plays he makes are plays you don't see very often. We're real fortunate to have him."
Byrd's current three-game interception streak marks only the fourth time a Bills rookie had interceptions in three straight games or more. If he records an interception today he'll tie Bills all-time interception leader Butch Byrd (no relation) for the franchise record (4 games).
He's also the first rookie with two interceptions in consecutive games since Dallas cornerback Everson Walls did it in 1981. Byrd's exploits recently earned him NFL Rookie of the Month honors for the month of October.
Byrd also leads the Bills in pass breakups with seven this season.
A fellow Pac-10 product, linebacker Brian Cushing was the top pick of the Houston Texans this past spring, taken 15th overall. Unlike Byrd, Cushing earned a starting job at the beginning of the season at outside linebacker and has been every bit as productive.
Cushing leads his team and all rookies in tackles with 56, which is also good for ninth best in the league. The USC product also has two forced fumbles, an interception, a safety, a half-sack and six pass breakups.
"I think it surprised everyone how quick the mental part came to him," said Houston head coach Gary Kubiak. "But the physical part, the plays he makes, they're the same ones he was making last year. He's just doing it again at a new level."
Cushing is on pace to become the second rookie in Texans history to lead the team in tackles and can join current teammate DeMeco Ryans, who had 155 tackles in 2006 en route to winning the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year award, as the only players to accomplish the feat. He's been productive week in and week out, either leading the team or tying for the team lead in tackles four times in his first seven games.
The only rookie to win an AFC Player of the Week award this season, Cushing's best game came in Week 6 when he posted nine tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and two passes defensed in the Texans' 28-17 win over Cincinnati.
"He's playing outstanding football, very athletic, has good size and excellent speed," said Jauron of Cushing. "I think they use him very well in their scheme. They give the chance to do a number of different things: to cover, to pressure, to read he's a very athletic guy with size, strength and speed. And he's stepped right up, playing at a high level."
With their teams facing one another today both rookies will be all the more motivated to continue their high level of play. And the player that winds up having the more productive second half of the season is the likely favorite for defensive rookie honors.