NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- At his best, Zach Cunningham is an elite run-stopping linebacker capable of roaming free to aggressively pile up tackles.
The Alabama native led the entire league a year ago in that category.
At his worst, the Texans’ highly-compensated former second-round draft pick from Vanderbilt has his vulnerability in pass coverage repeatedly exposed.
Between those two extremes of talent and execution, Cunningham, signed to a four-year, $58 million contract a year ago that included $33.574 million guaranteed, has had a few concentration lapses and past issues with lateness. The 26-year-old was a no-show for personal reasons for a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and chose to skip at least one practice session after arriving late, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly. A recurring issue with lateness prompted Texans coach David Culley to bench Cunningham for one quarter in the second game of the regular season against the Cleveland Browns.
Cunningham also missed one game, a 40-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills, on the reserve-COVID-19 list as a close contact of defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, who tested positive.
In recent weeks, Cunningham has been sharp and timely and has started to play like himself again with his role increasing with Christian Kirksey on injured reserve. He played every snap during a 17-9 loss to the Miami Dolphins and recorded eight tackles, second-most on the defense behind linebacker Neville Hewitt. Cunningham also had the green dot in his helmet to communicate with defensive coordinator Lovie Smith to relay the defensive signals to his teammates.
Heading into a road game against the 8-2 Titans, the 1-8 Texans are seeing positive changes in Cunningham, a 6-foot-3, 238-pound former All-Southeastern Conference selection who's run the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds.
“Zach has really rededicated himself to the small little details of playing football,” Texans linebackers coach Miles Smith said. “Obviously, he's athletic and can make a lot of tackles. In our defense, you really have to understand the big picture and he's done a great job of spending the extra time studying film. Our linebackers really are the field generals. Seeing everything that's going on helps the defense as a whole.”
Cunningham has 48 tackles this season, with one for a loss, after recording an NFL-high 164 tackles last season with seven tackles for losses. He has played a career-low 65 percent of the snaps as he adapts to Lovie Smith’s trademark 4-3 scheme from the 3-4 the Texans employed under former defensive coordinators Anthony Weaver, Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel, who’s now the Titans coach.
“He’s been productive,” Lovie Smith said. “He’s a good football player, 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. Giving him more responsibility and he’s stepping up to the plate. Excited about seeing Zach and the rest of the guys finish up the right way.”
The fact that Cunningham was entrusted with calling the defensive signals spoke volumes.
“For us to let a guy do that says what we think of him,” Lovie Smith said. “You kind of grow into it. Sometimes when you’re in a role and you don’t have to be in another role, Christian Kirksey was that guy making the calls. He had an injury, now it’s about the next guy stepping up.
“It was Zach’s time to do that, and he stepped up. We like what he did. Zach’s a smart football player, played a lot of football, and I think he liked being in that role, taking on more responsibility. We’ll continue to give it to him.”
Cunningham has an overall 44.2 Pro Football Focus analytics grade this season with a 62.6 run stopping grade and a 34.4 mark in pass coverage. He has allowed 18 completions on 24 targets for 178 yards and one touchdown for an opposing passer rating of 109.4 after a career-worst 126.4 passer rating last season with 37completions allowed on 43 passes for 452 yards and two scores. For his career, Cunningham has never had an opposing passer rating lower than his 103.0 as a rookie in 2018.
“This past game, he actually called the game, too, which he hadn’t been doing before,” Texans coach David Culley said. “He’s a heck of an athlete. He’s one of our better players on defense. The last three ball games that he’s played, he’s played probably his best football this year.
He gives us that guy in there that can get all over the place. He makes a lot of tackles. He’s all around there. I think his energy brings a little bit more to us on our back end than what we’ve had.”
For Cunningham, it’s a matter of adapting to the new defense, which is regarded as extremely linebacker friendly.
“I was definitely excited to hear that, excited get into the new scheme, get around the guys and just begin the process of learning a new defense,” Cunningham said during training camp. “As a linebacker, focusing on me playing the Will linebacker allowed me to do what I do best, which is run around, make plays, key on the ball, and also being more open in the coverage game. For me it was really just getting acclimated with the new defense, getting with the guys, working with the coaches as far as like the new coverage schemes that we had, just getting into that.”
The Texans restructured Cunningham's contract this offseason, accounting that lowered his salary-cap figure this year from $11.4 million to $5.767 million, according to NFL Players Association documents and league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
The Texans converted Cunningham's $8.5 million fully guaranteed base salary into a $7.51 million signing bonus and lowered his salary to $990,000 to add $5.63 million in salary cap space this year.
Cunningham was paid a $12 million signing bonus last year. In 2022, Cunningham is due a $10 million guaranteed base salary with a salary-cap figure of $14.777 million salary-cap figure.
The Texans rank 31stin the NFL in rushing defense, giving up 136.9 yards on the ground per game. Cunningham’s presence is pivotal to trying to upgrade that mark. The Texans forced five turnovers against Miami, generated four sacks and shut down their running game, holding them to 47 rushing yards.
The Titans love to run the football and execute play-action plays with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
“This is Zach’s kind of game,” Miles Smith said. “I think he’s well-prepared, and it’s about everyone doing it on Sunday.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He's on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.