The Kansas City Chiefs have already surpassed their win total from last season, starting out the year on a three-game win streak after winning just two games in 2012, and one of the key players in their turnaround has been third-year outside linebacker Justin Houston.
Those who have been paying attention to Houston and the Chiefs over the past two seasons would know that Houston’s career is off to an impressive start. He started 26 games over his first two seasons, compiled 15.5 sacks and 122 total tackles, and was ranked as the fourth-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL in 2012 by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
This year, he appears to be on track for an All-Pro season. With Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith both suspended due to off-field issues, Houston could emerge as the league’s best pass-rushing linebacker for the 2013 season.
Houston leads the NFL through three weeks with a whopping 7.5 sacks. For good measure, no one else in the NFL has five or more sacks through the first three weeks. Unsurprisingly, he has the highest Pro Football Focus rating of any 3-4 outside linebacker thus far.
His numbers may be misleading at this point in the season, as he has had the fortunate opportunity to record those 7.5 sacks by feasting upon two struggling rookie right tackles, Luke Joeckel of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Lane Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles; he was held sackless by the Dallas Cowboys and Doug Free, who is PFF’s highest-rated tackle through three games.
Nonetheless, his performance versus the Eagles on Thursday night was impressive regardless of the competition. In addition to beating Johnson for 4.5 sacks, he also had a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and three pass deflections.
Houston has been named AFC Defensive Player of the Week twice this season for his performances against the Jaguars and Eagles.
His stat line versus the Eagles is impressive by any measure, but the tape backs it up. Throughout this season, Houston has displayed the traits of a dominant 3-4 OLB, not only as a pass-rusher but also as a run-stopper.
An Emerging Superstar?
It may be a stretch to call Houston the next Derrick Thomas in Kansas City, but like the late Thomas, Houston is an explosive, well-rounded pass-rusher who can get to the quarterback in a variety of ways.
Houston was a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the same draft in which Miller and Smith were top-10 selections. While Houston isn’t quite as explosive as Miller and Smith, he has tremendous measurables for the position. At the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, Houston measured in at 6’3” and 270 pounds and ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash, according to NFL.com.
Houston was very productive at Georgia, compiling 20 sacks in three seasons, but a failed drug test at the combine led to character concerns, Bill King of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at the time. While Miller and Smith have both been plagued by recent substance-abuse issues, Houston has not had any known off-field issues since entering the NFL.
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In his third season, Houston is establishing himself as the star playmaker on a rising defense full of talent, including nose tackle Dontari Poe, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry. He is a multi-faceted pass-rusher, good at setting the edge against the run, and capable of dropping back in coverage.
Houston is a well-rounded athlete who can beat his opponent with quickness, power and moves. He demonstrated all of those abilities in his dominant performance in Philadelphia Thursday night.
Houston does not rely solely on his speed as an edge-rusher, but his athleticism as well. He showed that ability on the Chiefs’ final defensive play versus the Eagles, when he put a move on Lane Johnson to beat him around the edge, then tracked down Eagles quarterback Michael Vick to not only sack him, but force a fumble that he recovered himself.
Houston has a good set of moves in his arsenal. He can dip-and-rip to beat a blocker around the edge, and he is effective with both inside and outside swim moves.
Those moves give Houston the ability to disengage from blocks and get back into a play, such as he did on the second quarter play demonstrated below. Initially shielded by Johnson, he beat him with an inside move to break free, then quickly accelerated to track down Vick for a seven-yard sack.
Houston also plays with great strength, and he is a powerful bull-rusher. This may have been his most effective tactic versus Johnson, who he consistently drove back off the line on bull-rushes.
Another one of Justin Houston’s developing skills is his ability to get his hands up and tip passes, something he has done 13 times in his career. He did this twice on Thursday night, and he was credited with another pass breakup when Vick threw a pass into his helmet.
He isn’t quite at the level of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, but it makes him even more disruptive when combined with his all-around pass-rushing skills.
While 3-4 outside linebackers are typically known for their pass-rushing prowess, Houston is a solid run defender as well. He is an asset to the Chiefs defense on all three downs.
Houston is a disciplined run defender. He stays in position when playing contain, doing a good job of holding his ground to keep runs away from his direction. When runners do go Houston’s way, he is a solid tackler who can beat blocks and make the play.
Houston wasn’t the dominant player against the run that he was against the pass on Thursday—LeSean McCoy was able to beat him outside on a few occasions on a night where he ran for 158 yards. That said, most of McCoy’s rushing yardage came up the middle or to the left side, as Houston did a good job of closing off the edge and making plays on the runner when they did come his way.
Making Plays on the Ball
As evidenced already by his ability to force and recover fumbles and to get his hands on passes, Houston is a difference-maker with the ability to force turnovers. He is a rangy playmaker who must be accounted for at all times and is making pass-blocking from the right tackle position as important as it is at left tackle.
Houston typically lines up as a left outside linebacker over the opponent’s right tackle, while Tamba Hali can give the left tackle fits on the other side. That said, Houston’s career trajectory is on the rise, while Hali’s may be starting its decline as he approaches 30.
While he is better at rushing the passer than dropping into coverage, he has shown the ability to stay with tight ends and running backs in space on passing plays.
All in all, Houston has displayed a strong all-around skill set that seems to only progress with each passing week.
It would be inaccurate to call Justin Houston’s performance Thursday a breakout game, as he was already one of the league’s best outside linebackers and a Defensive Player of the Week award-winner. On a national showcase, nonetheless, Houston was able to make a statement that he should be considered a top-tier NFL linebacker. He could be on the cusp of superstardom.
All screenshots were taken from NFL Game Rewind with all illustrations added by the author firsthand.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.