Looking Back at Justin Houston's Historic 2014 season

A closer look at the best season for a pass rusher in Chiefs history

"I would trade all of this in for a spot in the playoffs."

Before we crunch the numbers of Justin Houston's historic season and before it's put into perspective from a big-picture point of view, the attitude of the player that had this legendary season needs to be understood.

That quote was one of the first things said by Houston in the locker room after the Chiefs' 19-7 win over the San Diego Chargers in the final game of the regular season—a game in which Houston broke one of the most revered players in Chiefs franchise history's most revered record, Derrick Thomas and the single-season sack record of 20 he set back in 1990.

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Houston's first remark was not about his individual accomplishment, which was widely known by everyone involved as he even approached breaking the record, but that of a team mindset.

"I'm proud of him for what he did," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "At no point did you feel like he was going for the record. You felt like everybody around him was pulling for him, but it wasn't from him. He was all about winning and trying to be the leader of the defense.

"He kept it upbeat and positive for the guys and brought a great energy to the team."

In what was nothing short of poetic, Houston broke the record on a strip-sack of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers late in that game. The strip-sack was a staple of Thomas' career in Kansas City (1989-99), and he still sits as the franchise leader in forced fumbles with 45.

For the record to be broken by such a humble player in such a fitting way, the script couldn't have been more perfect from an individual point of view. 

"He's well deserving of this by effort and how much time he spends at it," Reid said. "You guys aren't out there after practice but he stays out another half hour after practice just working different moves and the pass game. Him and Tamba (Hali) anytime the offense is up, they are on the sideline working all their hand games."

Reid continued.

"The two and a half hours that [Houston] is out there, he's practicing his trade. So you respect that. The end result is this, I mean that's what people see but there's a ton of hours that went into those sacks."

Houston finished as the NFL's leader in sacks, winning the Deacon Jones Award for that accomplishment, and he was also named a first-team All Pro.

According to the analytics website, Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Houston finished the season as the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL by a wide margin. His rating of 51.1 trumped the next highest player, the Ravens' Pernell McPhee (26.0), by a ratio of almost two to one.

Besides just rushing the passer, PFF grades these linebackers on their run-stopping ability, coverage and even includes a grade on penalties, which drops a players overall grade if they hurt their team by committing penalties.

Justin Houston's PFF 3-4 OLB Ranks
Category Value PFF OLB Rank
Overall 51.1 No. 1
Pass rushing 37.6 No. 1
Run stopping 8.1 No. 4
Coverage 1.4 No. 4
Penalties 4.0 No. 1

Houston is the only 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL to rank in the Top 4 in each of these categories.

According to PFF, Houston didn't commit a single penalty all season long.

"He also affects how a team protects," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. "What they have to do to protect around him and that helps our entire defense because it obviously singles other people up. So his impact isn't just in the number of sacks he gets, that's certainly a huge factor, but it also helps us totally in defense."

Looking further into Houston's numbers, he ranked 21st in percentage of snaps he was on the field and rushed the passer at 74.9 percent. That means there were 20 other 3-4 outside linebackers who rushed a higher percentage of plays when they were on the field.

Despite playing the most snaps of any 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL at 1,057, Houston ranked sixth in total number of pass rushing attempts at 444.

He still managed to lead the NFL with 22 sacks.

"If you look at all the jobs he does for us, he does a lot of things," Sutton said. "He's not just a pass-rusher. He's involved in multiple roles in coverage. We move him around to both cover and to pressure. I thought he did a really good job against the run at Pittsburgh and made some really good plays in that part of the game.

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

View the top photos of linebacker Justin Houston from 2014.

Houston helped the Chiefs defense limit Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell to just 72 yards of total offense in that game. Bell had come into that matchup leading the NFL at 145 yards per game rushing and receiving combined.

"If you only do one thing you're much easier to account for," Sutton said of how Houston affects many things. "You're much easier to ID for the offense. That's one of the things I like about both he and Tamba (Hali). They do multiple roles. It makes it a little harder I think to just say 'Hey, this guy's going to be in the rush. This guy isn't.'

"If you want to be an outstanding player in our league you really have to be good at a lot of things."

Houston has proved to be good at a lot of things during his time in Kansas City, but most notably, bringing down opposing quarterbacks.

Through his first four NFL seasons, Houston ranks No. 6 all-time in career sacks for the Chiefs with 48.5.

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One player who has a special appreciation for what Houston accomplished this season is veteran Tamba Hali, who ranks No. 3 in Chiefs franchise history with 79.5 career sacks.

"It means a lot," Hali said of Houston's record. "It's been over 30 years since that record has been set. A lot of guys have come in and tried to break that record, even myself, and didn't get close. What Houston did is remarkable. It's something that he'll look back on and be satisfied with his performance this entire season.

"The amount of effort he put getting to the quarterback, I've said it, he's everything. He's strong, he's fast."

While the Chiefs needed help that never came the last week of the regular season to get into the playoffs, they took care of business by beating the Chargers.

Houston finished with five tackles, four sacks, three tackles for loss and a pass defensed.

After the game, Houston tried to reflect on his performance over the season.

"Individual records, it will mean something when I'm done playing, but it's a team game," Houston said. "There's nothing more important than putting that ring on your finger.

"That's what I play this game for."

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