Can Justin Houston's Return Fuel Kansas City Chiefs Defense in Playoffs?

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Can Justin Houston's Return Fuel Kansas City Chiefs Defense in Playoffs?
Peter Aiken/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs defense hasn't been very good since Pro Bowl linebacker Justin Houston was injured more than six weeks ago against the San Diego Chargers.

Let's just call it how it is. 

It's true, the competition has been tougher in the latter part of the season for the Chiefs, but what was once thought to be a dominant, elite-type defense, has become nothing more than an above-average one with some obvious question marks.

How much were the struggles at the end of the year simply the exposure of a secondary that had been facing many sub-par quarterbacks early in the season?

Or did losing Houston make all of the difference?

The answer is somewhere in the middle. 

The good news for the Chiefs is that Houston should be back for their playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday.

The Chiefs won't have to worry about whether or not losing Houston was the main reason for their struggles, because if they go out there and play well against the Colts and win, with Houston, that question might be answered. 

 

The first 10 games

Houston's impact for the Chiefs defense early in the season could not be overstated. 

Houston's numbers in Kansas City
Year Games played Tackles Sacks FF PD
2011 16 43 5.5 1 4
2012 16 53 10.0 1 5
2013 11* 41 11.0 1 4

* Injured in first half, stats via NFL.com

Houston began the season like a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He was on pace for career-highs in most defensive categories before his injury. 

And despite missing the last six regular-season games, he was still named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl. 

It wasn't just the sacks that Houston brought to the Kansas City Chiefs defense. 

NFL Rewind - BJ Kissel

 

On this play from early in the season, you can see the ability Houston brought in run defense. 

Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor decided to keep the ball on the read-option, and Houston was able to keep outside contain by beating him to the edge and funneling Pryor back to where "help" was coming. 

Now Houston may not have gotten the credit for the tackle on this play, and this wouldn't show up in any kind of a box score, but he did his job. 

It's not always about the big plays when you lose a key player.

 

Coming back from injury

Houston's elbow injury occurred on November 24 in Arrowhead Stadium against the Chargers. It was late in the second quarter and the Chiefs were leading 14-3 when he left the game. 

With Houston out, the Chargers responded with 38 points and the victory. 

The official report was a dislocated elbow for Houston as told by Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder, via Terez Paylor of The Kansas City Star

The MRI reveals what we thought it would reveal, and that is that (Houston's) got some ligament damage in his elbow and he’s got some muscle damage in his elbow, which is normal for a dislocation.

Houston was able to practice fully leading up to the game against the Chargers this past week, but with the Chiefs' playoff spot already secured, Houston was given another week to rehab. 

There was no reason to rush Houston back for a game that didn't affect the Chiefs playoff picture. 

Whether or not Houston will be at 100 percent on Saturday remains to be seen, but there's no denying the Chiefs are a better defense with him on the field.

Therefore, the Colts will face a better defense, and team, than they saw in Week 16, when they beat the Chiefs 23-7.

Chiefs defensive numbers with, and without, Houston
Games Record Total Points PPG Total Yards YPG
First 10 games 9-1 138 13.8 2,942 294
Last 6 games 2-4 164 27.3 2,943 490

NFL.com

As you can see from these numbers, the Chiefs defense completely fell apart after Houston went down.

It's true that the opponents got tougher and the quarterbacks they faced were better at the end of the season, so it's not as simple as cause and effect.

To be honest, there's no way to quantify how much of it was the opposing teams getting better and how much of it was Houston being gone. 

The only thing we know for sure is that Houston is a great player and he makes the Chiefs defense better, and he'll play this week. 

The initial diagnoses only caused for a two- to three-week rehab process on Houston's elbow, and we'll be going on seven weeks leading into this game.

Houston has had plenty of time to rest and get healthy.

He's a significant upgrade to a defense that's currently in desperate need of an upgrade. They'll need him making plays on Saturday if they're going to beat the Colts. 

 

Looking at the Colts offensive line

Houston's impact in this game has as much to do with his ability as it does the ability of those he's going up against. 

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Colts offensive line ranks 26th in the NFL in pass blocking. 

One of the interesting things to watch in this game is whether or not the Colts give right tackle Gosder Cherilus any help on Houston. While the line as a whole hasn't been good for the Colts, Cherilus has had a good season for them at right tackle. 

He'll be the one lined up on Houston, and if the Colts decide to leave him one-on-one it'll be up to Houston to make plays.

NFL Rewind - BJ Kissel

The Chiefs may get back to some things that gave them success early in the season. This overload blitz against the Cowboys is an example. Houston dropped into coverage as the Chiefs brought three defensive backs (five players total) from the opposite side. 

If the Colts still bring a running back over to "chip" or slide their protection to help with Houston, the rest of the Chiefs defensive front seven is going to have to force the issue.

The Colts have struggled on the interior part of their offensive line, and that's where Dontari Poe could make the difference for the Chiefs. If Houston is getting the attention on the outside, Poe needs to be the force on the inside. 

Houston's impact in this game might not be seen on a box score necessarily, but in how the Colts approach him.

His presence might simply open things up for his teammates, and that might be exactly what the Chiefs need right now.  

In any case, Houston's return means good things for the Chiefs defense. 

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