”He’s playing good football,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid explained, “Fast, strong. They have a good rotation. He’s got his hand down in the ground now. He can rush the passer. He can play the run. He’s a big, strong kid. He’s a good football player. A lot of experience.”
The connection to Indianapolis was the Colts’ current general manager, Chris Ballard, who spent 2013-16 with the Chiefs in their personnel department when Houston was a member of the team. Through four starts this season, Houston has compiled 11 tackles (seven solo) and three quarterback hits, including 1.0 sack.
“It’s going to be really cool to play against him,” said Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. “Obviously, he was a really good player for this organization for a long time and is still a great player now. Hopefully he’s not hitting me too much but hopefully I get to talk to him a little bit on the other side of the football.”
This past offseason, the Chiefs transitioned from Bob Sutton’s 3-4 base defense to Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3, meaning outside linebackers like Tanoh Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks transitioned back to defensive end.
Like Spagnuolo, Indianapolis defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus runs a 4-3 base, so Houston did the same even after leaving Kansas City. So far, Houston has seemed to handle the transition well.
“I think Justin is the consummate pro,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said in a conference call with the Kansas City media. “We could not be any more excited with Justin as a player and as a leader on our team. It took him about one day to establish that. He has just been a pro in every sense of the word. I’m sure this means a lot to him. I’ve had this experience as a player and a coach. I’ve seen it as a coach now with other players. You know it’s always special and unique. And he had a lot of success in Kansas City... he’s really close with that organization and a lot of people there, so I’m sure it will mean a lot to him going into Arrowhead.”
Houston spoke to the Indianapolis media about returning to Kansas City on Thursday.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” Houston said, via the Indianapolis Star. “I don’t want it to get in the way of what I’ve got to do. I’m going there to play a game, not really worry about my past.”
Houston said he isn’t contacting any old friends—instead doing his best to treat it like any other game. But accomplishing that is easier said than done.
“I was there eight years. I’m human,” Houston said. ”I know some type of memory is going to come back to my mind when I step on that field.”
Chiefs left guard Andrew Wylie and three of the Chiefs’ other starting offensive linemen Sunday night — left tackle Cameron Erving, right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz — have all competed with Houston during training camp, reps that should make matters easier for them on Sunday night.
“It helps a lot,” said Wylie. “I think our tackles are really cued in to all of his strengths and us inside, too, because he will line up over a guard here and there, and so we’re working that into our game plan, but for the most part, we know what we’re going to get.”
Houston’s best season with the Chiefs came in 2014, when he recorded 22.0 sacks, just a half a sack shy of the league’s single-season record. That effort led to a six-year, $101 million extension with the Chiefs in July 2015, but after a knee injury late that season, Houston was never really the same.
The Chiefs saved $14 million against the cap this past offseason by releasing Houston, who is hoping to turn back the clock with the Colts.
“I just feel like the arrow is up,” added Reich. “With each week that passes and him getting comfortable in our scheme, it’s going to get better and better. I just think there’s a lot left in the tank, and we just have high expectations for how he’s going to produce.”