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Stop saying Justin Houston didn’t impact the Chiefs season last year

I can’t do this any more. I just can’t.

If you believe that Justin Houston did not have a huge impact on 2016, you’re wrong. If you believe that Justin Houston only played well against Denver, you’re wrong.

I’m excited for people to skip right to the comments after that intro, but for those of you still with me let’s start off with a few absolute facts:

  1. Justin Houston was injured (and then re-injured or had the injury aggravated) very late in the 2015 season.
  2. Because said injury was a rough one and he didn’t have surgery until FEBRUARY OF 2016, there was speculation that he would miss ALL OF 2016 (this is important as we go through things here).
  3. Houston came back, played in five games in the regular season as well as the playoff game against the Steelers.

Those are all facts. There are other facts we could talk about, but it’s come to my attention that many, many Chiefs fans believe (or at least claim to believe) that Houston did not have an impact on 2016 outside of the first half against Denver (during which pretty much everyone acknowledges that he was a fire-breathing dragon).

Generally speaking, when I speak to such people they say things like “he only had 1 sack outside that half” or something generic like “he was invisible” without elaborating.

Let’s talk about that. Hey, look, here’s a snap from the incredibly important Raiders game that the Chiefs won by a single score.

Rakeem Nunez-Roches was given statistical credit for that sack (for some reason they didn’t even split it), and he definitely hustled on that play ... but that’s 80 percent Houston there. His initial heavy pressure forces Carr to drop his eyes rather than look for receivers (it really was a pretty nice evasion by Carr) and basically chased him right into RNR. His superior athleticism allowed him to loop back and help run down Carr as well (again, along with RNR, who made a nice hustle play).

Plays like this are EXACTLY why staring at sack totals is a stupid way to gauge pass rush impact. Yes, it’s part of the equation, but not even close to all of it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s universally known that the most important stretch of the season for the Chiefs was the brutal three-game stretch in which they beat Denver, Atlanta, and Oakland consecutively. Without going 3-0 on that stretch of games they don’t win the division, and maybe even miss out on the playoffs if they lose a couple of them.

Without Justin Houston, the Chiefs very likely don’t win a single one of those games.

Denver is an easy argument to make. Anyone with a set of eyes saw that Houston’s defensive dominance kept the Chiefs in the game (and I already reviewed it here, and it’s a really fun read on his incredible game). That one is easy. But the common narrative I hear from people is that outside of that game Houston didn’t make any plays.

Oh look, here’s Houston preventing a touchdown against Atlanta.

If you put a less dominant edge defender out there on that snap, Freeman follows his center and right guard into the end zone, as Parker got taken out of the play and Dontari Poe failed to keep the center off of Derrick Johnson. There was a pretty easy lane there for a guy as explosive as Freeman if the TE holds Houston off even a little.

Instead, because Houston is impossible for TEs to block, he instantly shrugs him off and forces Freeman to redirect inside just a hair (inches matter in the NFL, I’ve heard), then manages to make the hit anyways. The now slowed and redirected Freeman runs into Poe, who has caught up to the play. Instead of a touchdown, the Falcons settle for a field goal. The Chiefs won that game by a point, mind you.

Oh, that’s just one play? Cool.

Ignore the fact that I’m an idiot who called a RT a LT (it was late, guys). There’s good overall pressure here by Poe and Chris Jones, but again it’s Houston who is the key. He controls the RT’s hands hand shoves him back into the Ryan’s spot, When he’s moved him far enough, he shrugs him off and pursues Ryan quickly enough to collect the sack. Poe and Jones were helpful, but Houston is the key guy here.

That was third down, by the way. Again, Atlanta had to settle for a field goal. Another four (probably, though you never know with today’s NFL) point swing in a game decided by a single point.

And of course, there’s the fact that Atlanta had a whole half of the field they couldn’t run the ball on.

Atlanta tried all game to run to the right, and all game it failed. Time after time it failed. It didn’t matter if they used tackles or tight ends, or tried multiple blockers like they did in the above play. That’s Justin Houston’s edge, and you’re not running on it. You’re just not.

Here’s where people need to understand the ripple effect a guy like Houston has on the defense (and the opposing offense). When you are just ERASING certain play calls, you’re narrowing the options for the opponent. You’re forcing them to be just a bit more predictable OR forcing them to alter their normal play calls in order to send extra help your way. That frees up options everywhere else.

I’m not usually a fan of making the argument “he frees up guys elsewhere,” but when the film backs it up it goes from speculation to fact.

This is a nice play design that takes advantage of the fact that Houston draws a lot of attention. He cuts outside while Ford moves inside. This forces Hudson (who really does make a nice play here) to break off from helping the LG with Poe in order to save Carr from getting absolutely crushed. And since the LG wasn’t in a good position to start off, that allows Poe to beat him and make Carr uncomfortable AS he gets pressured by Chris Jones, who is left 1-on-1 due to all the action occurring across the defensive line.

This is a play that should really shine a light on just how big a deal the domino effect can be in football. One win, even if it doesn’t result in direct pressure, leads to another win, which leads to another win... the final result is Carr throwing on the run and sailing a deep ball to a wide open receiver that would have changed the entire course of the game (remember the “camera cable” miss? This was it).

Houston, despite not collecting a sack against the Raiders (though he really should have on the one he shared with RNR), did a wonderful job making Carr uncomfortable on multiple snaps.

This was on the Raiders last drive of the game (the one Marcus Peters and Terrance Mitchell ended on back-to-back swats). This was on 3rd and 4, and Carr was able to complete his next pass to convert on 4th down, so many people overlooked this play by Houston. That’s a mistake, and here’s why.

This is what Carr had as he was releasing the ball (which is when Houston managed to hit him and make the pass an errant one).

Amari Cooper, the receiver Carr is looking at as he winds up, has just performed an exceptional fake outside and is now curling back inside, leaving Steven Nelson completely turned the wrong way and moving the wrong direction. He’s toast (Cooper can play, I’ll give him that. Though Mitchell and Peters did pretty well against him). In the meantime, the middle of the field is WIDE OPEN with only one player in good position to prevent a touchdown (Eric Berry, safety at the top of the screen).

Here’s the thing though... Berry slips and falls about .2 seconds after this screenshot changing direction to account for Cooper’s route. Had Carr been able to hit Cooper, he would’ve been on the ground as the ball arrived and (even with his remarkable closing speed) would have had almost zero chance of catching Cooper. The other safety (Sorensen) doesn’t have eyes on Carr and Cooper and was very, very unlikely to see what was happening in time to stop it.

In short, Justin Houston saved a touchdown on that last Raiders drive. The problem is “touchdowns saved when other aspects of the defense failed” isn’t a stat, so no one pays any attention to it and people continue to insist that Houston didn’t impact the Raiders game. Preposterous.

Look, 2017 is an important year for Houston. He got hurt in 2015, and the timing of that injury (remember, he had surgery in February and there was a lot of talk about him being out the whole season) caused him to miss most of 2016. He came back sooner than most had anticipated, but then had soreness (which could be expected in that situation) that the team, given the circumstances, was VERY cautious about and absolutely slowed him down against Tennessee (where his snap count dropped) and a bit in the playoffs as well.

That’s all true. He needs to be healthy for sure. I’m not arguing that. What I AM saying is that without Justin Houston, the Chiefs could have very, very, very easily gone 0-3 during that all-important stretch rather than 3-0. His contributions to each game were that critical. And keep in mind, this was just a selection of the plays he made that I found easily after less than an hour of just reviewing failed plays by the opponents (funny how many of them involved Houston, no?). It’s not every play he made, or even a majority. There are more on my Twitter feed, if you’re interested.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that Houston didn’t have an impact in 2016 or wasn’t good outside of the Denver game, feel free to say “we don’t make the playoffs without Justin Houston in 2016 and he was a stud in our most important games of the year,” and treat that argument like Marcus Peters treated this throw.

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