Danny Parkins from 610 Sports in Kansas City made a very interesting point last week. On his talk show, he talked about how it’s almost an accepted fact amongst Chiefs fans that Justin Houston will be a lot better this year.
While I disagree with the “a lot” better idea, I do think Chiefs fans, myself included, has taken for granted that Houston will continue to progress and grow in his role as outside linebacker for the defense. And while we might look back at the 2012 season and acknowledge our expectations for Houston as wishful thinking, I think it’s more likely we see the season as validation for our hopes and the emergence of a player we saw come on strong at the end of 2011.
The beginning of Houston’s time in Kansas City didn’t start off smoothly. He was late to training camp after an interesting holdout, considering he was a third round pick and the new CBA doesn’t really offer much room for contract flexibility that late in the draft. When he did show up for camp, reports said he was visibly winded after running drills and considerably out of shape compared to his teammates.
His preseason performance, however, was not as mediocre as his offseason conditioning regimen during the lockout. He would finish those four games with 9 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble. And although he was competing against second and third string reserves, he did enough to impress defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to be named starter heading into the season. After two lopsided defeats, fan favorite (for some reason) Andy Studebaker regained his starting role, which he held for the majority of the time until Week 11.
Through the first nine games of the year, Houston had 26 tackles, 1 pass deflection and nothing else. In the final seven games of the season, Houston had 30 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 pass deflections, and one forced fumble. And it wasn’t just the statistics that showed his improvement, it was the eye test as well.
At the beginning of the season, Houston looked lost when dropping back in coverage (not as bad as Tamba Hali does though), was getting dominated by blockers, and not really showing that he had played in a similar defensive system while at the University of Georgia. All-in-all, he looked like a rookie third round pick.
Then something noticeably clicked. He was covering his assignments more effectively, he was generating a good pass rush (which anybody lined up opposite Hali should be doing; here’s looking at you Studebaker), and he was looking like a player that belonged. In the process, he also managed to get the whole of Chiefs nation excited about the possibilities.
A consistent duel-threat pass rush has been missing from Kansas City since the Jared Allen trade in 2008. Let’s not forget about the NFL record for least sacks in a season, 10, the Chiefs set the season after trading the future Hall of Famer. They then finished with 22 in 2009 – good for 31st in the league – and then jumped to 39 in 2010, finishing tied for 10th in the NFL – mostly thanks to Hali.
While those numbers went down in 2011 to 29 sacks, it was the potential of the group that excited fans and analysts alike going forward. With Hali being Hali, if Houston continues to improve, we could be looking at our first one-two punch of pass rushers in quite some time.
And it’s not just fans of the team that noticed. Bill Williamson of ESPN ranked Houston as the fifth best linebacker in the AFC West coming in after Hali, Von Miller, Derrick Johnson and D.J. Williams. Williamson recognizes the possibilities of a Hali-Houston pass rush, and believes that the two players complement each other well.
So, can Houston live up to the hopes and dreams of Chiefs fans everywhere? Maybe not all of them (depending on what you are dreaming about Houston …), but I do expect 2012 to be a step in the right direction. Hopefully we aren’t disappointed.