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Film review: Justin Houston and Dee Ford against the 49ers

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Matt Lane locks himself in The Lab to give us some answers about the Chiefs edge rushers

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Stats — whether box score or advanced — can often align with the game flow and the impact they had on the game. Whether it’s receptions, yards per completion, or tackles recorded, the result of a given play is a great place to start evaluating the impact a player had on the game.

These stats are important and worth monitoring. But the process by which a receiver comes into the reception, the depth and difficulty of a throw, or where a tackle is made are far more predictive than box-score stats — or even advanced stats.

Evaluating the impact a player is having is far more complex than counting up sacks (or defined wins or losses) or having an opinion about how plays “looked.”

To judge a player’s impact, you must consider numerous factors such as consistency, how the opposition plays them, how they are winning, and their ability to adapt to an opposing player. When you consider these kinds of factors against the backdrop of the basic stats, you get a better predictive analysis of what’s to come.

This week down in the Arrowhead Pride Laboratory, we cued up the film on a pair of Kansas City Chiefs: edge rushers: Dee Ford and Justin Houston.

On the surface, Houston had a better game than Ford against the San Francisco 49ers, showcasing his ability against the run and the pass, and getting credit for two sacks — even though one didn’t count because of a defensive holding penalty.

Ford’s box score for the game, however, reads like the same speed-pass rusher that he’s always been. Even in advanced statistics, Houston graded out as elite for his game on Sunday, while Dee Ford graded out as good.

So let’s go beyond this surface analysis, and consider how each player was able to accomplish what they did — rather than just what they accomplished. Down in the Lab, I looked at how the two were winning, how they weren’t winning, how the opposition played them, and what our expectations should be going forward.

The EDGE rusher film review

Who wins and where

Justin Houston

Houston still plays with incredible power and extremely sound technique, and is able to take advantage of any poor pass set. Even against good pass protectors, Houston still wins a half-man relation — that is, he can quickly and easily use his hands to get his his outside arm or shoulder free from the blocker so they can only contact half of his body.

He uses a variety of moves to do this. His go-to move is a stab with his inside hand and then a variation of a club or swipe with his outside hand before ripping through with the inside hand. Against a rookie right tackle on Sunday, Houston was able to consistently get to that half-man relation and threaten the corner — and any time the right tackle didn’t get great depth and stay on balance, Houston was able to take it to him with ease.

On this play, Houston gets to attack a soft corner thanks to the RT getting a late drive off the line and a shallow kick on his set. Houston is able to attack his outside shoulder by stabbing the inside shoulder to keep the RT off balance, swipe the outside arm, and use his inside arm to pull the RT forward — while also propelling himself forward towards the quarterback.

This initial soft corner and fantastic hand usage by Houston led to a very quick sack — above the league average for the weekend — and he had a a few more similar wins. Houston was able to utilize this success on the outside rip and turn it into a successful counter to the inside on one snap, but that was the only variation to his pass rush that worked.

Dee Ford

Ford still relies on his freaky explosion and burst off the line of scrimmage to set up most of his rush moves — and when he gets the snap timed well he’s nearly impossible to block.

Ford can even beat good pass sets with his speed off the line, and his new-found ability to sink his hips low to the ground and turn a tight corner. Ford has always had the speed rush, but he’s also come up with a very effective inside counter to punish offensive linemen who try and set deep to wait for his speed rush. He has also regained the ability to transition some of his speed into power like he did at Auburn.

Similar to the Houston play we saw before, here Ford takes full advantage of a questionable pass set by the offensive tackle, who takes a short kick off his drive foot. The LT still tries to recover — and does so pretty well — forcing Ford to sink his hips to turn the corner tightly to bring home the sack. The play was won on Ford’s get-off, but the finish was his ability to transition from the speed rush upfield to the dip and corner once he had the edge.

Ford’s best pass rush move this season hasn’t been his speed rush around the edge but rather his ability to transition to an inside counter once he threatens the arc. His subtle use of head fakes, good footwork, and more violent hands to keep his chest clean have made his inside moves deadly — and incredibly hard to defend.

What’s left on the table

Justin Houston

It’s easy to say Houston doesn’t have a dynamic speed rush or bend around the edge — which is fair — but it’s also never been a staple of his game. The biggest thing lacking in Houston’s game this season is his ability to finish a pass rush and turn a corner. He gets proper leverage in the right position regularly, but lacks the burst and flexibility to finish turning the corner — without being driven deep — on a consistent basis.

In a vacuum, this pass rush looks good. Houston gets the outside step, rips under the RT, and bends around the corner towards the QB, who gets rid of the ball just before Houston gets home. The problem is the wide arc Houston has to take, giving the QB too much time to get the ball out.

Houston has no issues getting to edge of a blocker, but he’s struggled this season to finish the rush in a timely and space-efficient manner. This time, the RT has a better pass set without a ton of depth, and Houston clears his hands, leans in to turn, but carries the rush for an extra six yards before making the corner. This has been a consistent problem all season, but was very evident against the 49ers.

Dee Ford

As a pass rusher, Ford hasn’t shown a major weakness or lack of ability to do something. He’s never going to be a power rusher, but he can transfer his speed into power and then finish the rush after the initial contact. As shown here, there are times where an OT can set deep and be patient, forcing Ford to finesse his way to the half-man relation, rather than just power through — but that’s rather nitpicky, and it’s not a consistent theme.

Here Ford does better. In fact, this snap shows both players improving on their general weaknesses. It’s not that they can’t do better. Both (more Houston than Ford) need to improve their consistency.

How they’re played

Justin Houston

Despite some narratives still circling around Chiefs Kingdom, gone are the days that Houston must be double-teamed or chipped, or have the pass protection slide towards him.

Bob Sutton’s defensive scheme — which moves him around and sometimes drop him into coverage — helps, as do Chris Jones and Ford. But in this game, the 49ers were content with rookie RT Mike McGlinchy blocking Houston one-on-one. On numerous occasions, the 49ers also had tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszcyk block Justin Houston by themselves — with some success.

Plays like this are simply unacceptable for an edge rusher. I’d even go as far to say this is worse than being controlled by a tight end in the run game. Against the 49ers, Houston had nine pass rush snaps where he was left one-on-one against a skill player, and he pressured the QB just once on those snaps.

The initial question is always how quickly the pass comes out. This is a seven-step drop from play action with three hops after the last foot is planted — that is, a long play. Not only was Houston unable to win on a lot of these plays, he very few vertical/deep sets by the RT — something that we have seen all season — and saw fewer chips and receivers lined up over him. For most of the game, Houston was the player on the defensive line guarded one-on-one.

Dee Ford

Already seen/mentioned was the false start by the OT and the help from the Offensive Guard but beyond that SF was sending RBs out on chips and motioning TEs and WRs over Ford all game long to slow down his speed rush to force him into the LT’s body. He sees a lot of vertical and deep pass sets as well as swing passes out to his side to help slow him down. He was enemy number one in the 49ers minds on passing downs.

This is the lone snap vs a non-OL on a traditional drop back that Ford saw all game. There is a very specific reason for that as well; he was the biggest threat for the vast majority of the game.

Resetting expectations

Justin Houston

Houston is no longer the consistent, must-defend force along the defensive front for the Kansas City Chiefs. During the offseason, there was talk that he looked a little sluggish last year because he working his way back from injury — even from Houston himself — but after three games we can see the answer: Houston is not as explosive as he once was.

He’s still a good pass rusher, but not one that is a consistent threat to land home. He’s entered that savvy-veteran territory that routinely allows him to punish bad OT play and take advantage of bad pass sets, but expectations for him to dominate a game should be limited.

At this point, we’re better off hoping Houston remains a great run defender — which he is — who provides one or two clutch fourth quarter pressures when the team needs it.

Dee Ford

Ford has become the clear-cut best pass rusher the Chiefs have. He wins consistently — and more quickly — in a wider variety of situations than anyone else on the roster, and opposing teams know it.

Ford’s run defense is still a work in progress. It’s not likely it will ever be great, but if his health holds up and he maintains this level of production, it won’t matter. Ford is in a contract year, so it’s hard to separate that from his general improvement as player, but Ford is not the second fiddle any more. He’s the main attraction.

Looking ahead

In the next few days, we should find out more about Ford’s injury — originally described as a groin strain — but we should keep our fingers crossed that it’s minor.

Without Ford, the Chiefs pass rush will need a lot more creativity, and will have to lean more heavily on Houston, who just hasn’t shown the ability to shoulder that burden this year. Tanoh Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks may have the ability to step in and contribute. If Ford is unable to go, they may have to.