ARLINGTON -- Stonewalling elite pass rushers is his job, matching footwork and power with some of the most dangerous defensive players in the league, and Texans left offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil does it quite well.
At an athletic 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Tunsil plays the game with a smooth athleticism and practiced technique more so than the intimidating tactics some less talented blockers utilize.
Tunsil is the highest graded pass blocker in the NFL with a 91.2 mark and one sack, two quarterback hits, six pressures and nine total pressures allowed this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Now, Tunsil is tasked with slowing down one of the most gifted defensive players to enter the league since Hall of Fame selection Lawrence Taylor. Tunsil will square off Sunday against formidable Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Micah Parsons, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year from a year ago who has 12 sacks this season to go with 15 tackles for losses and 13 quarterback hits.
"I feel like Micah Parsons is a good player," Tunsil said. "It should be a fun matchup, my first time seeing him. It will be a good test to see where I'm at. It will be a good matchup."
The veteran left tackle, one of the most gifted and expensive blockers in the NFL as a two-time Pro Bowl selection who's arguably manufacturing an All-Pro caliber season, operates with an understated leadership style steeped in respect and empathy. When Tunsil has something important to say, he'll impart his knowledge and advice to teammates. He embraces mentoring, remembering how older teammates Branden Albert and Mike Pouncey counseled him when he was a rookie for the Miami Dolphins.
It's something of an art form of knowing what to say, when to say it and when, simply, to remain quiet and provide an example of leadership through his deeds of shutting down pass rushers to capably keep quarterback Davis Mills standing and athletically clearing a pathway for rookie running back Dameon Pierce to bust through.
On a 1-10-1 team heading into Sunday's road game against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, Tunsil is one of the few bright spots through his play and his attitude. That's one reason why Tunsil was named a permanent offensive team captain and has the C captain's badge now stenciled into his No. 78 jersey.
Parsons is a special player, though. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound All-Pro selection and former Butkus Award winner was a consensus All-American at Penn State. He has 25 career sacks, six forced fumbles and 136 tackles through two seasons. He's capable of lining up all over the front seven. He has 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash.
"Explosive, see-ball, get-ball guy," Texans offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "Can play on the line of scrimmage. Can play off the ball. Had a chance to face him some years ago in the Big Ten and he’s such a dynamic playmaker that you got to account for on every play.”
Parsons presents a rare combination of strength, speed and instincts. He's an extremely difficult blocking assignment.
"It does start outside with Parsons, I think he’s as good as there is in the league wherever they put him. I think his best position is where they’ve been playing him the most lately, and that’s on the edge or wherever across the line," Texans coach Lovie Smith. "That’s what we have to deal with. Yeah, it’s about the quarterback position, getting our running game going, but it always starts up front, and we need to do a better job.”
Parsons isn't the only dangerous defender on the Cowboys' talented defense. There's ballhawking cornerback Trevon Diggs to account for. And the Cowboys already have 48 sacks, led by Parsons, followed by eight sacks from North Shore graduate Dorance Armstrong, six sacks from DeMarcus Lawrence and five sacks from Dante Fowler.
“It’s well-documented, we’re talking about one of the best defenses in the National Football League and it starts with the guys up front," Hamilton said. "The guys up front allow the guys on the back end to play really aggressively as well. It will be a tremendous challenge, but it’s the National Football league. From week to week, you’re going to have these challenges. We just have to come out and play our game.”
The Cowboys rank fifth in the NFL in total defense and are off to a 9-3 start.
"They do have a lot of guys," Tunsil said. "They have a good defense. They have a good team."
Mills is aware that his pocket awareness has to be on point. He needs to have a fast internal clock.
“We’ll have to get the ball out of my hands extremely fast," Mills said. "The biggest thing is getting the ball out to playmakers on the edge and let them make a play. There’s no reason to sit back in the pocket too long and let those defenders do what they get paid to do. We can try to find ways to get the ball out quick on time and make some plays.”
Tunsil is the second highest paid player on the roster in terms of compensation this year, $17.7 million behind wide receiver Brandin Cooks’ $18.5 million total compensation.
That’s how valuable Tunsil is as one of the top blockers in the NFL. The Texans restructured Tunsil’s contract this offseason, moving forward with him as their top offensive lineman, converting his $17.85 million salary into a $16.815 million bonus with $1.035 million as his new salary. His 2023 salary of $18.5 million is unchanged after previously signing a three-year, $66 million contract after joining the Texans, a blockbuster deal he helped negotiate along with his advisors.
A year ago, Tunsil underwent thumb surgery and didn't play again after being placed on injured reserve after five games. This year, Tunsil hasn't missed a snap and has emerged as a team leader who loves playing for a team that needs more contributors like him.
Tunsil has proven to the organization that he's all-in. He made it a point before the trade deadline to communicate to friends and other key people that he had no desire to be traded. He wants to be in Houston on a long-term basis.
“It’s very important," Smith said of how pivotal Tunsil is to the offense. "There’s a reason why you pay, look at how much you’re paying each player. The one you’re paying the most money to, it’s critical that they’re on board with what you’re doing.
"That’s been the case with the guys that I’ve been around here. They’re pros with what they do. LT has been that way throughout, showed up every day, done a good job, great player, good teammate, all of that.”
In 2019, the Dolphins traded Tunsil, wide receiver Kenny Stills, a 2020 fourth-round pick and a 2021 sixth-round pick to the Texans in exchange for a 2020 first-round pick, 2021 first-round pick, 2021 second-round pick, cornerback Johnson Bademosi and offensive lineman Julién Davenport.
Although it was a hefty price to pay by former Texans coach and general manager Bill O'Brien in terms of giving up valuable draft capital, Tunsil has performed at a high level and stabilized a critical position that had lacked an established presence since trading former Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown to the Seattle Seahawks.
And Tunsil has become a big part of the Houston community through his philanthropy along with a tight inner circle that includes his brother Alex Weber, a personal trainer and yoga instructor who played wide receiver at Mississippi with his older sibling, business manager and close friend Laolu Sanni of Divine Tree LLC and friend and business advisor Saint Omni.
Tunsil is an aficionado of music, especially Sade, cologne, Yves Saint Laurent is one of his favorites, and gourmet food -- Guard and Grace is one of his top local spots -- with an eye for fashion who's known as a swaggy big man with his eye-popping game-day outfits, is thoroughly enjoying Texas after growing up in Lake City, Fla.
"I do, I love Houston man ever since I got here when I got traded from Miami in 2019," Tunsil said. "They embraced me with open arms. I always appreciate that, man. Coaches, front office, to the team ,they embrace me. So, I appreciate that."
Tunsil has made Mills' transition to the NFL a smoother one as he continues to learn on the job in his second year as the starting quarterback.
"Obviously, with me coming in last year as a young guy, he was one of the vets on the team," Mills said. "He’s not a real outspoken guy, but the longer I’ve been here, the closer I’ve gotten to him. Just know that he is coming in every day, being a professional, putting his best foot forward. We know what we’re going to get from him because he’s, if not the best, one of the best left tackles in the league right now."
What's it like to be around Tunsil?
“The biggest thing you feel from him is his confidence," Mills said. "He’s just going to go out there and lock down whoever is facing him on defense every play. I think that kind of echoes around the offensive line, knowing that, ‘Hey, it’s on us. We’ve got to win our one-on-ones so we can get some time and make a play downfield.’
"He’s not a loud-spoken guy, so he’s leading by example and everyone kind of feeds off of that. He’s done that well, and that’s obviously why he’s got the captain’s badge on his jersey.”
As positive as Tunsil has remained despite the Texans' inability to finish close games, losing takes a toll on everyone as competitive professional athletes. Tunsil's plan: stay the course, make the best out of each situation and, hopefully, win games and earn the elusive All-Pro recognition he wants.
"I think the main thing for us is just staying consistent and staying consistent for us is going to hopefully help us win games," Tunsil said. "Just keep playing my game, keep stacking them. My biggest thing is staying consistent."
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.