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Look closer: Justin Houston is still one of the best in the game

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Hi, my name is Seth and I’m here to start some fights.

Justin Houston made multiple big plays for the Chiefs last season, and had he not been on the team (and an average player was in his place), they would have very likely lost at least several more games.

There, that ought to do it.

Houston has become controversial among Chiefs fans, quite likely due to the size of his contract and the fact that he was injured for much of 2015-16. So now, after a complete year in 2017 in which he only collected 9.5 sacks, there’s a very vocal contingent of fans that believes he is a non-impact player.

That’s different from the group that has an issue with his contract. I can understand that. Paying any defensive player $20 million (his average cap hit from here on out) is a questionable-at-best proposition, to be sure. I’m not here to talk about whether Houston is worth that amount of money. There’s a legit argument to be had whether any defensive player is worth that (outside of maybe Aaron Donald).

Nope, all I’m here for today is to combat a single bad take: Houston doesn’t make enough of an impact.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane this season throughout the Chiefs’ wins, and you’ll see how Houston was critical in many of them (you know, by making an impact and stuff).

Let’s start at the beginning, as in the Week 1 win against the Patriots. The Chiefs ended up winning by a comfortable margin, so it’s easy to forget that early in the fourth quarter the game was actually still very much in question.

With 5:14 left in the game and the Patriots down a touchdown, Tom Brady had the ball. That’s not comfortable for anyone. Then on first-and-10, Houston made it a whole lot more comfortable.

That sack forced the Patriots into a couple of deep throws rather than allowing them a full playbook, and they were eventually forced to punt. Stuff like that matters a great deal.

A little while later in that same game...

This was the play that essentially ended the game. The play prior, Allen Bailey collected a sack with a bull rush that was partly enabled by Houston winning the edge and giving Brady nowhere to backpedal.

But that’s just one game, right? It’s not like he did it every week! Right?

With 9:23 left in a tied game Week 2, the Eagles faced third-and-12 and attempted to run a screen. The idea of a screen is to negate the pass rush. The problem is Houston wins enough of the edge to get into the throwing lane of the screen itself, is also threatening Carson Wentz (along with a well-timed blitz) more quickly than Philadelphia would like with that play call.

Wentz panics and makes an off-balance, ill-advised throw that bounces right off Houston’s outstretched arm (because, of course, Houston saw the throw coming) and into the loving hands of Chris Jones. The Chiefs went up a touchdown on the ensuing drive.

The very next time the Eagles had the ball, this happened on first down.

Again, you have Houston (for the second straight game) putting a team making a comeback attempt in a bad down-and-distance situation with a first-down sack. Plays like that kill comebacks.

What about Week 3, though?

Houston couldn’t possibly have been a major factor in sealing three games in a row, right?


The Chargers were down seven here, on their own 43-yard-line with 3:57 left on the clock. It’s third-and-10, the down where plays are made or broken. In this case, the play is broken by Houston rushing from the inside (a really interesting thing Sutton started doing at times last year, especially down the stretch) and inhaling Phil Rivers.

So we’re three important wins into the Chiefs season, and Houston made crucial plays in every one.

Of course, these plays are sacks, and what many are saying when discussing how Houston isn’t making an “impact” is by counting sacks. Of course, when you do that, you miss plays like this one in Week 4.

With a shade over 13 minutes left in a 17-17 game, Phillip Gaines got badly beat down the right sideline on third down. All that was required was an even semi-decent throw, and the Redskins were going to get a touchdown out of the deal.

However, in one of those moments that go unnoticed by most (but not coaches and other players—I assure you), Houston is able to win inside against his blocker and shrink the pocket Kirk Cousins has to work with. He doesn’t manage to hit him until right after the ball is released, but watch Cousins.

Because he’s got a massive arm right in his face, Cousins is forced to change the trajectory of his throw. Because of the massive human attached to said arm, Cousins is unable to step into the throw at all, instead of shrinking back from contact. The result is a very inaccurate throw that falls harmlessly to the ground.

You can ignore plays like this when you talk about impact, but you’d be wrong to do so. Plays like this win football games.

I could go on, and on, and on, in virtually every one of the Chiefs’ wins. However, I think the point has been made. I do want to include one more game-altering play, just because of its incredible importance.

In the fourth quarter of the Week 15 game against the Chargers (which, if you’ll recall, was a “winner likely takes the division” game), with 8:29 remaining, the Chargers had the ball in Chiefs territory on fourth-and-1, down by 10.

They opted to go for it. Frankly, we’ve seen this play before with Phil Rivers, and I was so nervous I could puke.

Then Houston made Rivers irrelevant.

This rush by Houston was so dominant that I had people in my mentions after the game claiming the right tackle missed his assignment, but you can easily see that isn’t the case when you watch it slowed down.

Houston fakes inside at the snap, causing the tackle to set up inside. Huge mistake, as Houston is already heading outside. The right tackle desperately tries to slow Houston down with his right hand, but Houston slaps it aside like I would a house fly and is in Rivers’ face immediately. He crushes Rivers as the ball is released, leading to a duck that is easily picked off by Ron Parker.

The Chiefs scored a touchdown and ran the clock down to four minutes on the ensuing drive, effectively ending the game. But once again, there’s no sack recorded so the box score analyst ignores what happened.

In short, Houston had a massive impact on the Chiefs’ season, despite being consistently asked to drop into shallow zones rather than rush the passer.

And of course, there’s always the fact that he’s a life-altering force of nature against the run, a fact that is passed by due to the inadequacies elsewhere on the defense.

As much as I enjoy watching Houston do ANYTHING on the field, watching his run defense is probably my favorite thing. It’s so effortless and so dominant. Teams avoid his edge because when they run there, it’s rarely successful at all. And even (as you can see in this play) when teams try to run away from him, he’s a threat to snuff out the play.

Maybe my most favorite thing is when teams try to compensate for Houston by sending pulling guards his way. Because in those situations he wins in ways no one else can.

Incognito isn’t the only Pro Bowl level guard Houston did that to last season.

Justin Houston is a highly, highly impactful player. If you think otherwise, that’s totally your right. Just like it’s the right of Kyrie Irving (and Geno Smith?) to think the earth is flat.

But for me, I’m going to enjoy Houston while I can. Because the reality of his contract is that 2018 is essentially a contract year (the Chiefs can save $15.5 million against the cap in 2019 by moving on, though they’d still have over $7 million in dead money. It was a remarkably poorly-done contract).

Given the direction the team is going, I have no idea what will happen there. But for now, I’ll just sit back and enjoy watching a great player.

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