If you're going to talk about the Kansas City Chiefs linebackers, there's no way you can start with anyone but Justin Houston.
Already known as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, Houston has picked up right where he left off a year ago and is currently tied for the most sacks in the NFL so far this season with six.
"I think obviously [Houston] has had a great start to the season," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. "The sacks are the most noticeable thing for people. One of the things he's done a great job with is pushing our players in practice and being a real force in the way we want to practice. I really appreciate that effort from him because he's a guy that can give it. He's got a great personality for that.
"I think one of the things we've always said about Justin—he has a complete game. He can play in coverage, he can rush, he can defend the run and I think he's showing all that this year so far."
Sutton admitted that while sack numbers get most of the headlines, the work that Houston and Tamba Hali do away from those sack plays are equally as important, if not more.
"They do a lot of other things in there that we call some of the dirty work that you don't notice at the end of plays—turning back inside, setting the edge—all those things that are going to help us better defensively," Sutton explained. "I think that part for almost anybody up front unless that's what you're really known for—being a run stopper kind of guy. That kind of goes unnoticed."
On the inside are a couple of players who weren't thought to be the starters heading into the season. But with injuries to projected starters Joe Mays and Derrick Johnson, Josh Mauga and James-Michael Johnson were thrust into starting roles.
According to their coaches, they have both played well and are getting better every day.
"I think [Mauga and Johnson] have gone in and have done a really great job," Sutton said. "Linebackers coach Gary Gibbs has done a great job bringing them along and they are both guys we thought could have roles. Obviously, we didn't think that role would be in the starting linebacker role when we began the season. But it doesn't change our standards.
"They're expected to perform now like the starting linebackers and these two guys have gotten better each week, which is really the key to this whole drill, and we're happy with where they're at. I think they will only get better the more they play there."
Gibbs agreed with Sutton's take on their development over the course of the season.
Enjoy photos of the Chiefs linebacker group.
"I think over the last couple weeks, our guys have made some improvement, especially inside," Gibbs said. "I think [Johnson and Mauga] both have played better. Their production has improved a little bit. I think they're more comfortable and gaining some confidence in their play."
Mauga is currently leading the Chiefs in tackles with 36, which already sets a career-high for him through his fourth NFL season (sat out 2013 with injury). Johnson is fourth on the team in tackles with 22, and he's just 15 shy of breaking his career best—set in 2012 with the Cleveland Browns.
Johnson and Mauga have combined for 507 snaps so far this season, which is far more than anyone thought they would have had at this point when the season began.
Another player who has had the spotlight on him through the first five games of the season is first-round pick Dee Ford, who continues to work on solidifying the entire body of work needed to be an every-down NFL linebacker.
"Dee's strength right now is rushing the quarterback," Gibbs said, "He's helped us through the first five games as a pass rusher and he'll see more playing time in that role as we go forward. As far as playing first and second down, he's in the learning process, he's making headway, he's doing a good job working hard, but we certainly understand where his strength lies." This linebacker group, led by Houston and Hali, will be the key to the Chiefs defense making a playoff push through the final 11 games of the season.