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Texans LB Zach Cunningham Run-First Mentality Critical vs. Titans

Zach Cunningham's ability to play the run is needed against the Titans on the road

HOUSTON -- Zach Cunningham is back for the Houston Texans' defense in more ways than one. On the field, his reps count continues to grow with fellow linebacker Christian Kirksey sidelined with a thumb injury. 

Off the field, he remains a leader in the locker room for young defensive names on the rise. Maybe that will come in handy when facing AFC South rival Tennessee on the road on Sunday. 

"He’s been productive," defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said Thursday. "He’s a good football player, I’ll start with that, of course. That’s understood. A lot of us hadn’t performed our best earlier, but it takes a while sometimes. I just know we like what he’s been doing lately."

Cunningham, 26, missed time to begin the season due to in-house disciplinary concerns. He also missed Week 4's showdown with the Buffalo Bills after being placed COVID-19/reserve list. 

Early on, the Texans (1-8) elected to only play Cunningham on run-heavy situations, trusting Kirksey and fellow veteran Kamu Grugier-Hill to handle the passing downs. Prior to Week 9's matchup against the Miami Dolphins, Cunningham only saw more than 50 percent of snaps on three occasions. 

Those days are expected to be long gone now as Tennesse (8-2) likely will be trusting its run game despite the departure of Derrick Henry to a foot injury. 

"You don’t change your philosophy based on one player, even though it’s an MVP-type player," Smith said of the Titans offense. "They’re set up a certain way, and its next guy up, and that’s what we’ve seen. The guy (Adrian Peterson) that’s replaced him has carried the football a few times, too, and I’ve seen him more than my share of times."

Cunningham was expected to be a focal point of the defense and a face of the franchise. Keep in mind that entering a contract season last fall, then-general manager and head coach Bill O'Brien gave the former second-round pick a four-year extension worth $58 million. 

In return, Cunningham led the NFL in tackles with 164. 

Currently, he has only tallied 48 total stops. 

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Change could have played a factor in the diminishing play from Cunningham, as Houston moved from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 scheme primarily playing zone under Smith’s direction. 

That's no longer the case. He's back in action and for good reason. 

"Our linebackers are our field generals," linebackers coach Miles Smith said. "Seeing everything that's going on, they can check us into certain things. It helps the defense as a whole." 

Cunningham played his most consistent game of the season against the then-1-7 Dolphins. Instead of pulling him on passing plays, Lovie Smith elected to take Kirksey's replacement Neville Hewitt off the field and shift Cunningham more inside. 

Houston would lose 17-9, but Cunningham would tally eight tackles. The defense as a whole only allowed one touchdown and recorded four sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception along the way. 

Tennessee is a run-heavy offense that utilizes a running back-by-committee approach with Henry out. Peterson, Jeremy McNichols and former Texans draft pick D'Onta Foreman have split the reps and each have a designed niche to keep the ground attack alive and well. 

In Houston's last game, Cunningham controlled the defense. He received the calls from Lovie Smith. It was, according to the coordinator's standards, Houston's best performance. 

Maybe Cunningham continues to see his reps grow past Sunday. Perhaps this is the start of a new leaf under the new regime. For now, the Texans need a run-first linebacker to go head-to-head with a run-first offense. 

Cunningham not only excels in the spot, but it's what he's been paid to do. 

"Zach’s a smart football player, played a lot of football, and I think he liked being in that role, taking on more responsibility," Lovie Smith said. "We’ll continue to give it to him.”