Is Key Pass Rusher Beyond 'COVID Legs' Slow Start?
HOUSTON - The Houston Texans are on their bye week during NFL Week 8. It might have felt for some like it was the third or maybe fourth bye week for pass-rusher Whitney Mercilus.
To say Mercilus has been underwhelming to start the season would be a fair observation. Long the "Robin'' to J.J. Watt's "Batman,'' Mercilus struggled in the middle of last season but a hot start and solid finish led to a new contract.
With big money came bigger expectations in 2020. The new deal was, to some critics, out of line for someone of Mercilus' age and production. Had he been a free agent and signed the deal the Texans presented him in an extension, it would've been the third-largest defensive deal last offseason.
Perhaps the carryover from a productive final few weeks and playoff run would carry over for the veteran entering year nine of his NFL career.
It didn't. Mercilus made no impact against Kansas City. He recorded no defensive statistics against Baltimore. He finally earned a tackle for a loss in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. He was productive for a couple of weeks prior to two more duds against the Titans and Packers.
What went wrong with this half of the formerly effective linebacker's season?
"At the beginning I think he had those COVID legs," Texans outside linebackers coach Chris Rumph said. "I think he was struggling a little bit, trying to get in shape the first probably two games."
It was surprising for Rumph, who is in his first year with the Texans after a long college coaching career, to see Mercilus struggling.
"He wasn't the guy that I saw on film,'' the coach said. "At that point I was like, 'Whoa, what's going on?'"
Rumph was assured by people in the building and the training staff to just give Mercilus some time. The coach said he believes Mercilus is starting to heat up and look like his old self again.
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Moving forward, Rumph said the defense would have to put Mercilus in positions to succeed as he isn't the same player he was in his earlier years.
"He is starting to make some plays and starting to look like his old self," he said. "I think a guy, you got to know who you are. You got to know what you have, what you possess, what you can do."
What the Texans hope Mercilus can do is avoid the midseason lull of 2019. Through the first six games last year Mercilus had 23 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and an interception. In the next seven games, Mercilus went sackless with another interception.
While the Texans might not be playoff-bound there certainly is respectability to play for in 2020 and maybe more importantly - winning is more fun than losing. For everyone. Preparing for 2021 will also be key for some players on this team, and Mercilus is one of them.
With a near-guarantee Mercilus dons Texans colors again next season, effectiveness down the stretch would go a long way in easing the fears of what at this moment feels like an albatross-level contract.