Chiefs LB Justin Houston Doesn't Need Sack Numbers to Impress

The majority of the football-watching world could tell you who Justin Houston is and what he's about on the football field.

He's about sacks. That's not really a secret.

When you lead the NFL with 22 sacks in 2014 and finish just a half of a sack shy of breaking the all-time record (Michael Strahan – 22.5 in 2001), that's a fair thing for people to know about you.

But to pigeonhole Houston, who ranked in the top four players among 3-4 outside linebackers in both pass coverage and run defense (according to Pro Football Focus), as just a pass rusher, is selling him short.

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"If you want to be an outstanding player in our league, you really have to be good at a lot of things," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. "If you look at all the jobs [Houston] does for us, he does a lot of things. He's not just a pass-rusher.

"The nature of the beast would say sack, sack, sack, but this guy played really good football in a lot of areas."

Sutton explained further some of those things that Houston, along with his counterpart Tamba Hali, does to help the Chiefs defense.

"[Houston and Hali] do a lot of other things 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 to help us better defensively.

"That kind of goes unnoticed."

Let's go through some of the things Houston does that don't get enough attention:

Excelling in run defense

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Here are three plays in which Houston shows three different run-stopping skills (watch video above for specific plays):

No. 1 - Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills: 10:30 left in third quarter (shrugging off block on the edge)

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This first play shows why you can't put a tight end on Houston in the run game. Buffalo Bills tight end Chris Gragg is 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds, and Houston shrugs him off and disengages the block like it's nothing out on the edge.

Houston comes down to make the tackle in the run game and makes the play look very easy. On this play, Houston displays the ability to anchor the outside in run defense.

No. 2 - Week 5 against the San Francisco 49ers: 5:30 left in first quarter (athleticism)

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Now let's talk about athleticism.

Against the San Francisco 49ers back in Week 5, Houston made a play in run defense that displayed the kind of athleticism that many outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense don't usually possess.

On a designed quarterback draw from 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Houston initially gets up the field to rush the quarterback, but then has the awareness to quickly diagnose that Kaepernick is about to take off and run.

At this point, Houston is already three yards up the field and doesn't have the best of angles to make a play on Kaepernick, one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL, who has a lane down the field.

It was at that point that Houston displayed a kind of athleticism that very few players at his position have. Houston reverses direction and catches Kaepernick from behind just a few steps before he hit the open field.

No. 3 – Week 15 against the Oakland Raiders: 9:01 left in fourth quarter (A-gap run defense)

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On this third and final play of run defense, rookie linebacker Dee Ford, veteran Tamba Hali and Houston are all on the field together.

Houston actually lined up inside over the right guard, where he's given up at least 60 pounds to the guys across the line of scrimmage from him.

On the snap, Houston engages with the right guard to play the run, but then has to maintain his position and anchor as the right tackle, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Khalif Barnes. Barnes comes down the line of scrimmage and hits Houston, attempting to wash him out of the play.

Houston, who is still engaged with the right guard, absorbs the contact from Barnes, maintains his ground, spins away from both guys and makes the play on running back Latavius Murray for just a minimal gain.

Leverage, strength and instincts, all were displayed by Houston on this play.

On these three running plays, Houston showed the ability to shed a block and hold the edge, the athleticism to make a play in space on one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL and later, the ability to beat a double-team in A-gap run defense.

These are three different run defensive skills demonstrated by the NFL's best pass rusher—an unlikely combination.* *

Excelling in pass defense

Much like there are many ways to excel in run defense, the same can be said for pass defense.

For Houston, that often meant sacking the quarterback. But when he wasn't terrorizing opposing quarterbacks or flushing them out of the pocket, Houston was finding other ways to make an impact.

Here are three examples from Houston in 2014 of excelling in pass defense without sacking the quarterback:

No. 4 – Week 5 against the San Francisco 49ers: 10:17 left in fourth quarter (pass coverage)

On this first play against the pass, Houston is put in a precarious position as 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick rolls to his side on play action with running back Carlos Hyde heading to the flat.

At this point, Houston has two choices. He can either: A) Attack Kaepernick and allow Hyde to run free in the flat, or B) Drop further into coverage and allow more space for Kaepernick to take off and run if he chooses.

Houston runs down the line of scrimmage and gives a little ground to cover Hyde at the end to make it a more difficult pass for Kaepernick. The attempted touch pass, something Kaepernick is not known for, falls incomplete.

It's a great example of awareness and instincts from Houston.

No. 5 – Week 11 against the Seattle Seahawks: 13:38 left in first quarter (batted down pass)

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On the Seahawks' first offensive drive of the game, Houston and the Chiefs defense forced a three-and-out because of a heady third-down play from Houston.

On third-and-2, the Seahawks were lined up in tight bunch formation to the right with receiver Jermaine Kearse on the inside. 

After the snap, Kearse got a free release to the flat and looked to have an easy time picking up the first down, as there's nobody within 10 yards of him as the pass is attempted.  

But Houston, who knows he can't get to Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson because he had already began his throwing motion soon after the snap, gets his hands up in the throwing lane and bats down the pass, forcing the Seahawks to a three-and-out on their first offensive drive.

Even on the quick passes that can neutralize an effective pass rush, Houston finds a way to make a play on third down.

No. 6 – Week 13 against the Denver Broncos: 2:48 left in first quarter (Blowing up screen pass)

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On this third and final play against the pass, Houston once again displays fantastic instincts and awareness to blow up a screen pass intended for receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

With the Chiefs in man coverage, Sanders, who lined up wide right for the Broncos and was covered by rookie cornerback Phillip Gaines, went into motion towards the backfield, but quickly reversed his direction before the snap.

After the snap, Sanders took the quick pass to the flat from Peyton Manning.

Houston, who was lined up on the outside on the play side, read the play perfectly and easily beat the right tackle who attempted to block him and blew up the play for a loss of five yards with a big hit on Sanders.

It was a great job of recognition from Houston, who didn't bite on the run-fake to the opposite side.  He stayed home and was quick to recognize what the Broncos were trying to do.

Justin Houston during the 2014 season.

These are six plays in which Houston made great plays for the Chiefs defense and none of them were sacks.

So while many people continue to discuss the obvious, Houston's prowess as an elite pass rusher, people shouldn't forget that he's an elite player in each of these other individual areas as well.

Houston played 1,033 snaps for the Chiefs last season and only 22 of them resulted in a sack. That not only shows how difficult it is to get a sack in the NFL, but the percentage is such that these other things, like excelling in run defense and pass coverage, should get as much attention.

Houston doesn't need sack numbers to impress those paying attention.

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