Justin Houston: A Superstar Sail Emerging From a Sinking Ship

His face may not be famous just yet, but Justin Houston’s play definitely is.

Despite a college career at the University of Georgia that would make him worthy of a first round pick, a failed drug test at the NFL Combine would cause Justin Houston’s stock to plummet in the 2011 NFL draft. Teams were forced to balance his character off the field against his potential to perform on it. Because his potential to perform on the field was so high, the Kansas City Chiefs wouldn’t let him fall past the 70th overall pick.

After two years of his professional career, Houston hasn’t had any transgressions that would make fans or the organisation cautious about committing to him in the future, while more importantly, he has given them plenty of reasons on the field to make him a staple of their defense moving forward.

When Houston was drafted, he was taken with the though that he could be a complement to Pro Bowler Tamba Hali. Hali was coming off a career season of production when he finished the regular season with 14.5 sacks, but the lack of a second legitimate pass-rushing threat upfront was curtailing his potential. Houston wouldn’t be that threat from his first day with the Chiefs, but he did manage a respectable 5.5 sacks as a rookie, starting just 10 games.

It wasn’t really fair to judge Houston or Hali during the 2011 season though. The final year of the Todd Haley era was one full of turmoil, poor play and signs that pointed to a fractured locker-room. Late in the season, the team showed some life when Romeo Crennel took charge, but 2012 would bring just as much dysfunction for the Cheifs under the former Cleveland Browns’ head coach.

Outside of maybe Jamaal Charles or Brandon Flowers, Houston was one of the few green leaves on a dying tree. He was quickly realising his talent and showing off the all-around outside linebacker play that players such as Ahmad Brooks, Jarrett Johnson and Clark Haggans had recently exemplified on Sundays. However, unlike those players, Houston could do all that and still came with elite pass-rushing potential.

On a team that won just two games all season and was blown out 11 times, Houston still managed to sack the quarterback an incredible 10 times. For that reason, he was included in this pass rusher series that has already looked at Von MillerJJ WattAldon SmithCameron Wake and Geno Atkins.

Layout of the Process

Every sack was considered and examined under this set of criteria:

  • Where and how the defender lined up.
  • Whether the player beat a blocker or not.
  • The quality and position of those blockers was also noted.
  • Whether the player was double-teamed or not.
  • Whether the player was involved in a stunt with a teammate or not and the effects of that stunt.
  • The primary reason for the sack.
  • The game situation ie: time, quarter, score, down and distance.
  • How the player beat attempted blocks.
  • Whether the player attacked the football or settled for the tackle on the quarterback’s body.
  • How long it took the player to get to the quarterback.
  • How many yards each sack pushed the offense back by.
  • Where the player broke into the backfield.
  • Where the player tackled the quarterback.

Houston’s Overall Results

Not a single Chiefs’ defender played every single snap for the unit last year, but two players played 99.5 percent of snaps. Defensive back Eric Berry was one of them and Justin Houston was the other. Houston played 100 percent of snaps in 13 games for a total of 1,013 snaps on the field. However, because of the Chiefs’ record and his versatility, he only rushed the passer 352 times.

Houston had a sack percentage of 2.84, good enough to put him ahead of Geno Atkins, 2.5, and within touching distance of JJ Watt, 3.5, Aldon Smith, 3.1, and Cameron Wake, 3, with Von Miller out in front on 4 percent. Houston may be fifth on the list, but all those ahead of him played on much better teams with significantly better front sevens. That definitely matters.

Every single one of Houston’s sacks came from a defensive end position in the stance of a linebacker. Eight of those sacks came from the left side and two from the right.

Not once did he stunt with a teammate for a sack and only once did he beat a double team, against the Carolina Panthers on an extended play. Two of his sacks came when the play was extended by the quarterback, allowing him more time to beat his blocker, but only one came when he didn’t beat a block attempt, against the New Orleans Saints.

Predictably, most of Houston’s sacks came when his team was either tied or playing from behind. Only three of his total came when they had a lead and never was that lead greater than six points. Only once all season did he sack a quarterback with a lead in the fourth quarter, but even that was just a three point lead with over nine minutes left against the Carolina Panthers. All of Houston’s sacks came when there was less than a touchdown either way between the teams on the field. Just one sack came in the first quarter, two in the third quarter, four in the second quarter(three of which came within two minutes of half-time) and three in the first half of the fourth quarter.

Houston isn’t a speed rusher in the style of Cameron Wake, but he still more often than not came free on the outside shoulder of an offensive tackle. Houston only beat tackles, he didn’t ever penetrate the pocket from the interior. Of his 10 sacks, eight came against the right tackle with five of those victories beating the tackle past his outside shoulder and the other three on his inside. The two left tackles he beat, Ryan Clady of the Denver Broncos and Michael Oher of the Baltimore Ravens, were beaten on the outside. When he beat Oher, he tackled the quarterback outside of the pocket for his only sack outside of the pocket all season long. He initially forced Flacco to scramble before tracking him down in the flat.

Four of Houston’s sacks came on first down, four more on third down and two on second down. Never once did he sack the quarterback when the distance between the line of scrimmage and the first down marker was greater than 12 yards. Maybe coincidentally, but worth noting, four of his sacks came within 20 yards of either endzone with one of those going for a safety.

Method Analysis

Timestamp Players Beat Speed Bull Combination Move?
ATL, Q2 01:14 Tyson Clabo No No No Punch to Shoulder
NO, Q2 01:11 None No No No No
NO, Q4 08:27 Zach Strief No No No Leverage
NO, Q4 05:43 Zach Strief No No No Sidestep
BAL, Q2 11:29 Kelechi Osemele Yes No No Dip
BAL, Q3 00:41 Michael Oher No Yes No No
PIT, Q3 14:07 Mike Adams No No No Inside step
DEN, Q1 04:22 Ryan Clady No No Yes No
DEN, Q2 02:00 Orlando Franklin Yes No No No
CAR, Q 4 09:07 Byron Bell No No No Rip

Houston doesn’t rely on one aspect of his pass-rushing arsenal to beat offensive tackles. Although he only bull-rushed  an offensive lineman once, there is an element of strength that runs through everything he does. He doesn’t really have the speed to turn tackles around so that they are out of position from the snap, therefore he often needs to use his strength to knock them out of position or concentrate it through his hands.

This sample of Houston’s pass-rushing ability portrays him as a very intelligent player. His ability to make the right move and execute different plays from different body positions is excellent. It’s tough for tackles to see what is coming with him not because he is incredibly fast, but because he doesn’t have one premiere talent that he must rely upon.

His power and timing with his hand usage is excellent, allowing him to knock blockers away from his body, while his feet are fast enough for him to lose blockers with one quick step or a sharp shift against his momentum. Against the two left tackles, he showed off completely different aspects of his game that weren’t on show on the other side. He bull-rushed Michael Oher relying solely on his strength, before using the threat of his bull-rush and very quick hits on Ryan Clady to beat him with his speed rush.

When it comes to who Houston beat, there are a number of relatively big names on the list:

Name Snaps Sacks Allowed PFF Grade*
Tyson Clabo 776 5 12
Zach Strief 534 6 0.3
Kelechi Osemele 746 7 3.7
MIchael Oher 785 11 3.7
Mike Adams 292 7 -3.9
Ryan Clady 696 3 24.9
Orlando Franklin 697 5 20
Byron Bell 537 6 -9
Total 5063 50 51.7
Average 632.88 6.25 6.46

 *PFF Grade is for pass blocking only
All Statistics courtesy of PFF

Not only was Houston playing on the worst team of the pass-rushers who have so far undergone this study, he also beat the better offensive linemen than them according to the grades of Pro Football Focus. Houston’s 6.46 average grade for the offensive linemen he beat is substantially higher than Von Miller’s 4.2, Cameron Wake’s 1.01, JJ Watt’s .63 and Aldon Smith’s -2.26.

That speaks volumes about Houston’s natural ability and the potential for his talent moving forward.

Timestamp Players Beat Attacks Football Time Elapsed Yards
ATL, Q2 01:14 Tyson Clabo No 2.6 7
NO, Q2 01:11 None No 5.3 11
NO, Q4 08:27 Zach Strief No 3.6 7
NO, Q4 05:43 Zach Strief No 2.5 7
BAL, Q2 11:29 Kelechi Osemele No 3.0 6
BAL, Q3 00:41 Michael Oher Yes 4.5 7
PIT, Q3 14:07 Mike Adams No 5.2 3
DEN, Q1 04:22 Ryan Clady Yes 3.2 8
DEN, Q2 02:00 Orlando Franklin Yes 3.8 4
CAR, Q 4 09:07 Byron Bell No 4.9 9
Total 9 3 38.6 69
Averages .9 .3 3.86 6.9

Looking at the other aspects of Houston’s sacks is tough because the sample size is so small. Considering how effective his arms are when he uses them to knock offensive linemen out of his way, he should probably look to make greater use of them to force fumbles from the quarterback. Too often he settled for the sack when he could have made a potentially game-changing play(at least, game-changing within the moment rather than result altering).

Individual Play Analysis

Houston’s most impressive move during last season came against the most impressive player he faced, Ryan Clady.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 16.42.51

On the rare occasion that Houston moves to the other side of the field, he starts the play in a very wide position. The horizontal distance between he and Clady must have the left tackle expecting a speed rush outside the edge.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 16.43.03

Clady gets an excellent jump off the line at the snap and is in a perfect position to engage Houston because of it. The first image shows that he hasn’t sacrificed any space inside but is still in position to play the speed rush. The left tackle looks to engage Houston with his arms extended, but Houston is proactive and meets them in the air as they come down.

This is where his power and leverage comes in. Houston effectively flips from attacking his outside shoulder to putting all his power through his arms to bull-rush Clady backwards. Clady succumbs to Houston’s power, giving up ground, but he is still upright and between the pass-rusher and his quarterback.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 16.43.31

Clady is eventually forced to bounce backwards, while Houston is still coming forward. The outside linebacker is able to stay in attack mode and hit Clady again, but this time he gets his helmet underneath Clady’s and is able to use his leverage to screw around him.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 16.43.44

That motion allows Houston to turn into a position where he can attack the quarterback by using his speed. He isn’t looking to push Clady at this point, he instead sheds his block as Clady falls over trying to stick with him, before getting to Peyton Manning in the pocket.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 16.44.48

Once there, Houston has the awareness on this occasion to attack the football and try to force a fumble from a favourable position.

It’s tough to beat left tackles. The position may no longer carry the same value as it did just a few years ago, but teams still typically put their most gifted, athletic pass-blockers there. Instead of just trying to run over or run around a player like Ryan Clady, you have to have that added dimension to your game and that ability to act quickly to take advantage of the small opportunities you will receive.

Receive is a bad word there, because left tackles don’t typically give out opportunities, you have to force them from their grasp. That’s exactly what Houston did on the above play.

He was able to beat Michael Oher with a straight up bull rush, but Oher was one of the worst left tackles in the NFL last year and moved to the right side for the Ravens’ playoff journey. He took a similar approach on that play to the one above, but Oher was beaten by the first hit that Houston put on him, unlike Clady who was able to rebound to the second level of the play.

It was Houston’s other sack against the Ravens that showed off his speed and athleticism on the speed rush though.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 17.07.47

Against Kelechi Osemele on the other side, Houston used his speed to get outside of the rookie offensive tackle before dipping underneath his last-ditch attempt to take him down. To this point in the play, Houston had made a very impressive move to beat the offensive tackle, but it’s what he did after this point that was most impressive.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 17.08.18

Houston absorbs Osemele’s hit, despite moving at full-speed and being sprawled so low to the ground. He maintains his balance by putting one hand on the ground to continue carrying his moment towards the quarterback. even from this awkward and uncomfortable body position, Houston is still able to make a very effective and explosive move to come up and tackle Joe Flacco.

For his first sack of the season, Houston made a veteran move despite the fact that it was his first after his rookie season.

 Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 17.30.14

Houston took his wide alignment over Tyson Clabo this time. Clabo is a good right tackle, he’s not a superstar, but he is tough to beat for most pass-rushers. Just like with Clady, you would expect that Clabo was worried about Houston’s speed outside when he saw this alignment, but unlike Clady, Clabo allows himself to be beaten inside.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 17.29.12

Houston comes straight at Clabo from the snap. He hesitates for less than a moment before taking a sharp step towards his outside shoulder. Clabo shifts his weight in that direction as a reply, but Houston immediately throws his momentum inside and uses his arms to battle through his inside shoulder en route to the quarterback.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 17.29.35

Clabo is completely taken out of the play because of Houston’s power and timing, while the outside linebacker gets a clean run at the quarterback.


By the end of this coming season, Justin Houston will be 25 years of age. He hasn’t entered his prime yet and should still be developing as next season goes on. However, if last year is anything to go by, Houston should be a star sooner rather than later. He needs to keep himself out of trouble, like everyone does, but the talent is quite clearly there.

He is the type of player who could have 20 sacks in a season, however, much like the way Lebron James rarely looks to take over a game by solely scoring the ball, Houston has too much of an all-around game for the defense not to use him in coverage very often. That could curtail his potential as a sack specialist, but it won’t prevent him from potentially becoming one of the best, if not the best outside linebacker in the NFL some day.

The first step for getting Houston the recognition he deserves is fixing the Chiefs however. How Andy Reid handles the offense and the other aspects of the defense will have as much to do with Houston’s success going forward as his talent or character will.

 You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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