HOUSTON (AP) The Texans' linebackers were expected to be one of the team's strengths this season.
Instead, Brian Cushing has missed the last two games and top overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney has only played twice as the group has failed to do much to help in a mediocre season so far. The two are getting healthy now and the Texans hope they'll help the linebackers reach their potential in the last seven games.
Defensive end J.J. Watt, who has led the defense early, is one person who would love to see them return.
''That would obviously be great,'' Watt said. ''Good football players that we really enjoy having out there on the field.''
Clowney and Cushing both practiced Wednesday, and coach Bill O'Brien said it ''looks good'' for both of them to play Sunday at Cleveland.
''Overall, whoever the linebackers (are) that have been in there have played pretty well,'' O'Brien said. ''I think those guys have done a good job, but anytime you can add two more quality players to the group, you're expecting that group to play well.''
The problem that has kept Cushing out didn't happen this year, but is a product of having major surgery on the same knee in each of the last two seasons. He started every game in 2009 and earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors by piling up a team-leading 133 tackles. He reached the 100-tackle mark again in 2011 when he again led the team with 114, but has played just 12 games combined the last two years because of injuries.
Cushing recovered from a broken leg and surgery to repair a ligament in his left knee in time to start the first seven games this season, but he soon started having trouble with it and needed some time off.
He said he felt good early this season and hopes the break will get him back to how he was feeling before the season. Cushing's 50 tackles are tied for most on the team, and he has one sack.
This week he should line up for just his second game with Clowney. The only time both players were on the field together was in the season opener. Clowney has played just one game since then because of knee surgery and an illness.
Clowney was a defensive end at South Carolina before moving to outside linebacker in Houston's 3-4 scheme. He said his knee doesn't really hurt anymore, but he wanted to take time to let it heal properly so it didn't lead to bigger problems down the road.
''There (was) some concern,'' he said. ''But a lot bigger concern is playing with it now and not being able to do the things I want to do out there, that I was doing before I got hurt. That's where we're trying to get back to now. We're going to keep working to get back to that.''
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is excited about the possibilities for his defense when everyone is healthy. The team expects Clowney to team with Watt and bolster the pass rush after Clowney made a name for himself at South Carolina by getting into the backfield.
He wrapped up his three-year college career with 24 sacks and 47 tackles for loss, highlighted by a 2012 season when he set a South Carolina record with 13 sacks.
While Clowney and Cushing have dealt with injuries, third-year player Whitney Mercilus has starred for the group. A first-round pick in 2012, Mercilus lost his starting job to Clowney in camp, but jumped back into the lineup when the rookie was injured and has 20 tackles and four sacks this season.
O'Brien raved about the contributions of Mercilus.
''With the more experience you get, especially in our system, the better you're going to play with that type of work ethic, and I think that's what you're seeing from Whitney,'' O'Brien said.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL