Justin Houston: How Good Can Kansas City’s OLB Be?


Sep 19, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (7) is pressured by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston (50) at Lincoln Financial Field. The Chiefs defeated the Eagles 26-16. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs are 3 – 0 for the first time since the 2010 season when they last won the AFC West. This has left fans of the game from water coolers around the nation to the pundits at NFL Network and ESPN scratching their heads and wondering how this happened.

“Just who are these Kansas City Chiefs?” one headline read this morning after the Chiefs finished off the Philadelphia Eagles in primetime last night. While the world is still trying to figure it out, Chiefs fans know you don’t have to look very far. One of the main reasons the Chiefs have found early success is because of #50, outside linebacker Justin Houston.

Houston played his college ball at the University of Georgia where he was a weakside linebacker. During the 2010 season, he led all SEC linebackers in sacks with 11.5, showing early on he had the ability to get to the quarterback. As the 2011 NFL Draft approached, many touted that Houston was a late first round talent. However, a reported positive test for marijuana during the NFL Combine resulted in Houston’s draft stock plummeting. He fell out of the first round and continued his free fall through the second until the Chiefs selected him with the 70th overall pick in the third round.

Prior to Houston arriving in Kansas City, the Chiefs only pass rush threat was Tamba Hali. Hali was a defensive end who had converted to a pass rushing, outside linebacker when the Chiefs transitioned to a 3-4 base defense from their previous 4-3. Houston’s talents were sorely needed in KC, and many thought he was a steal in the third round.

Those same people were calling him a bust by week 13 of the 2011 season when the Chiefs made the trip north to a cold Soldier Field to face the Chicago Bears. The season was looking bleak, head coach Todd Haley could see his career circling the toilet and Chiefs fans were pretty much disgusted with anything having to do with football. Then, something magical happened for Houston. He figured out how to get to through the pass coverage and sack and NFL quarterback. In fact, he figured it out so well against the Bears offensive line, he put Jay Cutler on his back three times that night.

Justin Houston had arrived in Kansas City.

From that point on, he didn’t look back. Houston essentially cemented his position in the starting lineup after that performance in Chicago. As the 2011 season ended with a pair of blocked field goals against the Oakland Raiders and thus, blocking the Chiefs from making the playoffs, all anyone could do was look forward to 2012.

While last season in Kansas City was the darkest of times, there were some bright spots. One of those was the continued development of Justin Houston. Houston continued to work hard in his sophomore NFL season and was able to find the quarterback ten times last year. He led the team in sacks (which isn’t saying much as they were the worst in the league in that category with just 27 all year) much in part to the fact that teams were gameplanning so heavily for Tamba Hali on the opposite side they weren’t even considering Houston.

At the end of 2012, Houston received his first Pro Bowl nod as an alternate when Von Miller of the Denver Broncos was unable to attend due to injury, joining fellow Chiefs defensive players Derrick Johnson, Eric Berry and Tamba Hali. Perhaps more important than his Pro Bowl invitation was the fact that Houston came in at #49 on NFL Networks “The 100 Greatest Players of 2012.” All votes on that show are from NFL players, meaning Houston had been recognized by his peers as one of the best players in the league. Quite an honor when you think about the fact there are 1,696 active players in the league. Houston managed all this despite (or perhaps in spite of) the abysmal play of the Chiefs in 2012.

Many think that the reason the Chiefs pass rush was so limited last season wasn’t due to the talent level of the rushers (we are talking about Houston and Hali here) but more the “bend but don’t break” defensive scheme of former Chiefs defensive coordinator and head coach Romeo Crennel. In that scheme, the quarterback isn’t put under nearly as much pressure, and thus the sacks aren’t there. That was one of the biggest question marks at the start of the 2013 season: what would defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s “attacking 3-4” look like. More importantly, how would it affect the pass rush of the Chiefs?

At three games in, I think we’ve gotten our answer.

Where the Chiefs were at the bottom of the league last year in sacks, they lead the league now with 15. If you’re having trouble comprehending that, let me just say that they’ve already accumulated more than half the sacks they had last season in just three games. Leading the team that leads the league, is Justin Houston with 6.5.

There are a couple of records out there that Chiefs fans should be aware of because Houston has a legitimate shot at them this season.

The single season sack record is currently held by former New York Giants linebacker and current talk show host, Michael Strahan. The record is 22.5 and has stood since 2001. With Houston’s current sack count, he would just need to average 1.25 sacks per game for the rest of the season to break that record. If he stays on the same tear he’s on (6.5 sacks per three games) he’ll have the record in hand by week 12.

Of course the other record that could fall at any time (though it has stood since 1990) is the single game sack record. It was set on November 11, 1990 when the Kansas City Chiefs played the Seattle Seahawks and Derrick Thomas found Seahawks’ QB David Krieg seven times in one game.

I know what you’re thinking.

“Pump the breaks. Let’s not compare Houston to Thomas quite yet.”

I’m not saying Houston is as good as Thomas. The great #58 played in the league for 10 years before his tragic death. He’s set records that still stand to this day. I’m sure when Denver Broncos Chief of Football Operations John Elway closes his eyes at night, all he can see is DT standing across the line of scrimmage from him.

But let’s face it, Houston is good. He could be as good as DT. The most fun part of that argument will be watching him to find out.

The last time Andy Reid coached a team that started 3 – 0 they ended their season as the Superbowl. Reid rode that ride on the shoulders of #5, Donovan McNabb. To me, it’s not out of the realm of possibility he could take a similar ride on the shoulders of #50.

After all, “defenses win championships.” And the Kansas City Chiefs, led by Justin Houston, have one hell of a defense.