Houston finding his stride in Chiefs defense

Posted Nov 30, 2011

Rookie Justin Houston has recently transitioned into an every-down player for the Kansas City defense

Since being thrust into an every-down role against New England, rookie outside linebacker Justin Houston has been on a tear.

It’s the kind of production that has turned the heads of teammates and has Houston grading out as one of the Chiefs top defenders over the past two games. No, Houston still hasn’t recorded his first career sack but those around Arrowhead see that as minor side note.

Over the past three games, Houston is showing signs of a rookie that’s seen the game slot down. He’s playing with confidence and making minimal mistakes in the process.

Houston’s technique has improved, his tackle totals have increased and he’s active behind the line of scrimmage. It’s the kind of play that can pair nicely opposite Tamba Hali for years to come if it continues.

“I thought we saw real progress from Justin Houston again and that’s a real good sign,” head coach Todd Haley earlier this week.

The third-round draft pick was all over the field against the Steelers, pressuring quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and beating would-be blockers throughout the night.

On one play in particular, Houston fought off two blockers to defeat a bubble screen. He also collapsed the right edge to throw running back Reshard Mendenhall for a one-yard loss.

With the exception of sacking the quarterback, much of what an outside linebacker does goes underappreciated. Houston performed all of the dirty work at an NFL level this past Sunday. It’s an encouraging sign considering he was labeled as a “rush-only” player coming out of Georgia. The sacks will come.

“Multiple young guys are stepping up,” Haley said. “We’re reaching that point in the season where they are no longer rookies and they have a feel for the lay of the land and they’re starting to play better. We asked them to and we’ve pushed them to.”

Houston was the last of Kansas City’s nine draft picks to ink his rookie contract, but was among the first to show flashes of big-play potential. He turned in an impressive preseason, leading the Chiefs in sacks and pressures, but became almost invisible when the regular season began.

In an effort to improve the team’s pass rush and put Houston in a better position to succeed, the coaching staff decided to make him a sub-package player and handed the base repetitions to Andy Studebaker in early October.

Houston had been playing base reps to begin the season, while Cameron Sheffield handled much of the sub-package work.

“With these young players, trying to put too much on them, have too many things that they have to be concerned with really in our experiences slows them down, generally speaking,” Haley said at the time. “And it’s no fault of the players; it’s just a lot to try to pick up in a short amount of time, especially with the circumstances that the entire league was presented with this year.”

Now, Houston is back to doing it all.

Houston re-emerged in base sets midway though a November 13th loss when the Chiefs were struggling to defend Denver’s option attack. He immediately made several athletic plays in space and has been an every-down defender since.

Houston’s play is currently at a high enough level that he rarely leaves the field. He’s played the same amount of defensive snaps as the team’s cornerstone linebackers - Hali and Derrick Johnson - each of the past two games.

“We’re getting some big-time plays from a couple of those young guys, specifically Justin and Allen Bailey,” Haley said.

Bailey has been mixing into the Chiefs sub-package rotation at defensive end throughout the season. Bailey and veteran defensive lineman Amon Gordon have each played pivotal roles in the defense re-finding its pass rush over the past two games.

Houston has aided in the rush as well, but has helped the defense improve on a down-to-down basis as well.

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