We often attach a great deal more importance to things that happened recently, while allowing the memories of what was fade a bit in our mind. This is a nearly universal phenomenon regardless of how hard you try and remain objective.
This is a deep thought (well, deep-ish, we’re on a football blog so let’s not get crazy), but it pertains to the subject matter. Folks, I actually forgot how good Justin Houston is.
Make no mistake, I remembered he’s a great player. I knew he was a guy who could change games. It’s not like I ever thought of him as some run-of-the-mill Pro Bowler. But as I watched Houston absolutely wreck Denver’s offense during the first half of Sunday’s game, I remember distinctly thinking “holy smokes, this guy is taking over.”
And that’s how good Houston is. He’s the rare player on defense who can actually take over a game. Only a few other defenders can make such a claim, guys like Miller, Mack, Watt, and Donald. And that’s the rarified air Houston is in. He isn’t just a great player. he is, quite literally, one of the best five defenders in the entire NFL. And that was on full display in front of the whole country Sunday night, as offensive coordinators remaining on the Chiefs schedule groaned and said, “awww crap, he’s really back.”
Houston/Tamba on the same side running a stunt is unfair. No good choices for the LG when LT fails. Now imagine Ford on the other side. pic.twitter.com/N0UOQVj9ai— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 28, 2016
Now, I normally review film when there’s some kind of question to be answered, and there really aren’t any questions about Houston’s performance against Denver (other than “how many times did Donald Stephenson hold him,” which I’ll get to). However, I wanted to see if he was as dominant on review as it seemed live, and just celebrate the return of the best player on the team and one of the best in the NFL.
So I went back and re-watched on all-22, taking a look at each snap and tracking wins/losses against as a pass rusher and a run defender, pressures/hits/sacks, holds drawn, and runs stuffed. If you’re curious what a win or a loss means on a given snap, there’s some explanation to be found here.
Before we start though, I want to be clear about something: Justin Houston’s game against Denver was the best I’ve ever reviewed by a defender. It was remarkable. let’s look at some numbers then talk about what makes Houston so uniquely dominant.
Pass Rush Wins- 19
Pass Rush Losses- 7
Run Defense Wins- 8
Run Defense Losses- 3
Pressures/Hits/Sacks- 12 (three sacks, one hit, eight pressures)
Run Stuffs- 5 (solo or near-solo stops of a runner two yards or less after LOS)
Holds Forced- 7 (one was called)
Two things to keep in mind when examining those numbers, particularly the pass rushing numbers: Houston missed some snaps with a shoulder issue late in the first half, and he also dropped into coverage somewhere between 6-8 times (I did not include coverage snaps for the sake of this article). In other words, Houston could have done even more damage than he already did.
I don’t really know what else to say about those numbers other than to note that Houston wasn’t just collecting stats, he was crucial in stopping multiple drives by the Broncos. Three drives for Denver ended directly because of Houston. That’s not a typo. Houston had two sacks on third down as well as a run stuff on a third and short. All three were ridiculous plays by Houston. Additionally, Houston applied pressure on Tamba Hali’s overtime sack that seemed to aid in Siemian curling up and dying the way he did.
Watching Tamba and Houston immediately ruin this pocket on 3rd down in OT makes me feel feelings. No chance for Siemian. pic.twitter.com/8DmT3iR4OP— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 30, 2016
I don’t know about you, but I find it beautiful watching Houston and Hali destroy pockets together again.
It’s difficult to describe just how dominant Houston was on film against Denver. And before you ask, please don’t think for a moment that Houston got shut down by Donald Stephenson. Houston beat Stephenson multiple times and applied a great deal of pressure on Trevor Siemian throughout the second half. However, he wasn’t able to get home because Stephenson (unlike the tackle he replaced) was willing to do what most tackles try when they get whipped: hold on for dear life and hope a flag doesn’t appear. This began with their very first snap against one another.
That thing you see around Houston’s throat in the middle of the big red circle? That would be the arm of Donald Stephenson. Said arm is the only reason Siemian got that pass off.
I could show you half a dozen screenshots identical to the one above, including on two of Siemian’s touchdown passes (plays in which the only reason Siemian didn’t get sacked was due to Stephenson holding. Or, on one play, holding and then committing an illegal block in the back). I spent plenty of time showing multiple GIFs on Twitter of the multiple holds if you’re interested, but suffice it to say that the six holds I tallied on Stephenson were only the most blatant of the bunch. Had I included borderline holds it would’ve been more like 15-18.
What makes Justin Houston uniquely difficult to block as a pass rusher is that he doesn’t have any weaknesses and is quite literally (in the real sense) good at everything. He’s got a solid first step, good burst, can bend around the edge well, locates the quarterback extremely well, handfights with the best of them, and possesses more strength than the vast majority of 3-4 outside linebackers. He combines a freakish combination of athleticism and strength with exceptional understanding of angles and having a “plan” when rushing the passer.
Houston’s most noticeable trait when rushing the passer is generally his strength. He can just run over tackles if they’re not careful or have a bad set.
I have never in my life felt bad for an NFL offensive lineman until this play. Houston just humiliating the guy. Different leagues. pic.twitter.com/fKmr27ZjxM— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 28, 2016
I get that the tackle made a terrible block on that play, but have you ever seen anything like that? I mean, outside of high school seniors beating up on a freshman tackle?
(Fun story about that play. So my wife, Mrs. MNchiefsfan, was hanging out with me while I reviewed film and made GIFs (I know, she’s a lucky lady). She saw that one and actually gasped and said “oh no” she felt so bad for the guy. She made a face that I’ve only ever seen when one of our kids accidentally runs into a wall (an objectively hilarious moment that only moms are able to sympathize over). That’s how badly Houston beat the RT: its the equivalent of being a toddler running into a wall)
So any time you line up against Houston you have to be aware of the possibility he’ll get those long arms on you and just start powering you back. Now, there are some good power rushers in the NFL, and you need to be ready to anchor against them. Of course, preparing yourself for a bull rush leaves you a bit more vulnerable to a speed rush (it’s impossible to be ready for everything at once, unless you’re Joe Thomas or Willie Roaf). And Houston, with his athleticism and lean around the edge, is perfectly capable of exploiting that to go right around you.
Only reason this TD happened was Stephenson held Houston then hit him from behind w/ his shoulder. Non-calls shouldn't dictate TD's pic.twitter.com/2Ce5WGQ7LD— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 30, 2016
Yes, that’s the TD pass to “Sunshine” after Siemian ran around for 30 minutes (or so). Houston beats Stephenson quickly and forces Siemian to run left. ol’ Donald does the right thing and grabs onto Houston to slow him down (wisely betting that the refs would continue to swallow their flags). He then, as Siemian gets ready to spin and run right, gives Houston a big nudge with his shoulder that sends Houston stumbling. No flag on either (good game, ref. Good game).
My main point isn’t about Stephenson or the refs. Look at that rush from Houston. Once he commits to taking the outside edge he just flies around the corner. Stephenson, for all his flaws, has fast feet and he’s left in the dust. Generally speaking, the move against a guy who can get around the edge like this is to “cheat” to the outside and focus on getting deep quickly. However, against Houston (as we’ve established) you HAVE to be careful or he’ll go right into your body and plow right through you.
As if all that weren’t enough, Houston has a stellar inside move.
Houston literally drags a holding Stephenson to the QB, swats the pass. His inside move is ridiculous, any leverage and he's got you. pic.twitter.com/YVG6G07lgp— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 30, 2016
Here, Stephenson gets his hands extended for a punch but isn’t able to really land it as Houston stutters back and forth (Basically forcing Stephenson to hesitate as he threatens to go outside or inside). Houston counters Don’s hands and moves him aside, gaining just a bit of daylight towards the quarterback. And it’s all over from there. Houston’s strength comes into play again, as once he’s got bit of leverage few tackles are strong enough to hold him back without a set base and having him squared up.
So in other words, when you face Houston you have to worry about him going inside, outside, or right through you. He’s quick enough to fake any direction and savvy enough to avoid or counter your punch. There are no good answers.
And then there’s Houston’s run defense, which has been missed very nearly as much as his ability to rush the passer since he’s been hurt.
The pass rushing will get all the hype, but Houston's phenomenal run defense was desperately missed. His presences reduces the playbook. pic.twitter.com/BT3Af0P3Nf— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 28, 2016
Man, I could watch this all day. This was another play that Mrs. MNchiefsfan had some commentary regarding the blocker...
“Oh, that poor guy. Look at him afterward just standing there with his hands up. It’s like he’s standing there saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ over and over again as he has to watch his buddy get hurt because of him. This is terrible.”
(Side note: if my wife ever decided to actually write about football, ya’ll would forget about me inside a month)
That basically sums up Houston on this play, though. His combination of power and agility results in the TE getting chucked to the side. And look how quickly Houston squares and then closes on the ball carrier. He closes space between himself and the runner as quickly as any non-secondary player out there and is a phenomenal finisher. That’s a big deal. He generally has what I like to call “Eric Berry tackling,” where a runner goes nowhere once he’s hit. That’s often the difference between a first down and a punt on third-and-short situations.
Houston sets the edge so well and is almost never moved out of his spot by anyone. Match him up against a RT one-on-one and he’ll absolutely set the edge and prevent a runner from getting outside nine times out of ten. Additionally, he’s quick enough and strong enough to shed those blocks to make a tackle the moment the runner abandons a run to the outside.
Often, of course, teams scheme to have TE’s blocking the SOLB on runs around that edge. This allows the bigger, stronger RT to engage defensive linemen. The idea is that tight ends are able to at least hold off the SOLB long enough to let the runner scoot by. And it absolutely does not work on Justin Houston.
I like to picture Houston screaming "THAT'S MY EDGE!!!!!" every time he stuffs runs like this, like the kid from the FNL movie. pic.twitter.com/LJLWVnwazn— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 30, 2016
I honestly enjoy watching Houston’s run defense as much as I enjoy watching him rush the passer. He’s one of the best three in the league at both, which is incredibly rare.
Now, Houston is not going to dominate every game like he dominated the Denver game. Performances like that are incredibly rare, even for great players. It’s just impossible to do it week in and week out at the NFL level (if it weren’t, the NFL sack record would be about 45 or so).
However, Sunday was a good reminder to all of us exactly who the Chiefs are getting back on defense. He’s not a good player. He’s a GREAT player, one of the absolute best in the league on offense or defense. He can do everything (I didn’t even talk about his ability to drop back in coverage without embarrassing himself), and do it at a level most players can only dream about.
Justin Houston is back, and the ceiling of the defense just got cranked up a whole lot higher.