Let’s go back a year ago. This is before Justin Houston broke Derrick Thomas’ single-season Chiefs sack record, before he signed the richest contract in club history. Things were much different.
Houston had outplayed his rookie deal. He knew that, and the Chiefs knew that. He was set to be the second-lowest-paid starter on defense, and he wanted a raise. The Chiefs were open to the discussion, but they also had the leverage of controlling Houston for at least three more years.
Football people knew about Houston. Knew what he could do. Knew that he had the talent to be one of the league’s premier pass rushers. But he hadn’t done it, not quite yet, or at least not long enough. If you talked about Houston, it was more about what he could become. Not what he already was.
(This story is part of The Kansas City Star’s Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
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So the Chiefs, after much negotiating, finally offered what they thought was a fair deal. They would pay Houston like a very good pass rusher, but not an elite one. Objectively, this made sense. Both sides knew Houston was essentially making a choice between security and risk.
Houston could have a lifetime of security right now. Or, he could play for the chance to earn generations of security later. Houston thought about it. He is one of 11 children. He is a proud man. He told his agent, Joel Segal, to reject the deal.
“Are you sure?” Segal asked. “There’s good money on the table.”
“I’m going to bet on myself,” Houston said. “Just watch me.”
You know what happened next. Houston accumulated 22 sacks, more than anyone else in the league last season, and more than anyone else in Chiefs history. After the season, the Chiefs had no choice. They gave him more money than any linebacker in NFL history.
This is the story of how that came to be, of exactly how Houston terrorizes quarterbacks as well as anyone in the NFL. To make the point, we asked five football men who watched all or most of Houston’s games last year for their favorite sacks.
They had a lot to choose from. The Eurostep to the inside against the Rams. The race around the edge and into Michael Vick’s back. The bull-rush through D.J. Fluker. The chase-down of Philip Rivers for the record. And, of course, 18 others.
But we’re going with the sack against Colin Kaepernick, when Houston beat 49ers tackle Jonathan Martin off the snap, pushed the much bigger man back five full steps, discarded him like a bag of groceries, and then chased down one of the league’s most athletic quarterbacks.
This is close to the entire package, all in a four-second clip.
Now we need some help translating exactly what makes this clip — and this man — stand out.
John Alt played 13 seasons and started 149 games for the Chiefs, almost all of them at left tackle. He made two Pro Bowls, and made All-Pro a different year. At The Star’s request, he watched the sack against Kaepernick many times from four different angles.
“The first thing I think is that the left tackle should be happy because Justin is over on the right side most of the time,” Alt says. “That’s a blessing.”
Herm Edwards played 10 seasons in the NFL and coached 19 more, including nine with the Chiefs. He now does regular work on ESPN. For this column, he studied Houston’s sack against Kaepernick.
“He has the same first step, probably, that Derrick Thomas had,” Edwards says. “And he’s probably a little stronger than Derrick.”
The first moment is about speed. Fast twitch. Everything starts here. That initial explosion is so critical. It determines the rules. Plays typically last three or four seconds, so whoever loses the first burst often does not have time to recover. Even with the naked eye, you can see that Houston moves before Martin. Already, this is Houston’s snap.
“It’s almost like he knew the snap count,” Alt says. “That happened way too fast. (Martin) was not ready for that.”
“And that should not happen because this was a road game for the Chiefs,” Edwards says. “So you’re not dealing with crowd noise. But by the time the tackle got his hands up it was too late, because (Houston) already got the edge on him.”
The second moment is about hands. The broadcasts, and even the studio shows, usually don’t have time for this kind of thing. But this is how battles are won, and there might not be a pass rusher in the NFL with better hands than Houston.
The speed of that initial burst gives Houston the first punch. He comes in low and plants into Martin’s chest, perfectly placed underneath the tackle’s shoulder pads. His hands are like piranhas, clamping down and never letting go, strengthened through obsessive year-round workouts.
When Houston gets his hands like this, he can control offensive linemen like a bar bouncer. Martin is now officially a henchman in Houston’s highlight video, no matter how the rest of this goes.
“You see how tight those hands are?” Alt says. “You see how he gets his hands inside the tackle’s hands? Every video I saw, he had the (tackle’s) chest.”
“This man is powerful,” Edwards says. “His hands are so powerful. After he beat the tackle off the line, he uses those hands to turn the shoulder and that’s the key. He can generate all that power and then transfer to speed. And in that frame, it showed it.”
The third moment is about smarts. The NFL is far too big, and protecting the quarterback far too important, for pass rushers to consistently get by on physical gifts alone.
Because by this point, Houston has beaten Martin. But beating Martin and making the sack are two very different things. One of the most common ways for a pass rusher to beat the lineman but miss the sack is with overpursuit.
Race around the edge too wide and you give the quarterback time and space to get away. Houston doesn’t let that happen. He sees Kaepernick plant his back foot, and his precise hand placement allows him to throw Martin back a step at exactly the right moment.
Now Martin is on Houston’s left, but he might as well be on the sideline. Kaepernick is straight ahead.
“This is why he doesn’t have to rely on his speed,” Alt says. “And he doesn’t lose his balance. A lot of guys fall down when they try to do this.”
“This is the most impressive part,” Edwards says. “He saw where the quarterback was, and he shed the tackle.”
The fourth moment is about speed again. This is where the play is finished. This is where pass rushers separate themselves, the good and the very good, the very good and the great.
There is always a place in the NFL for guys who can consistently pressure the quarterback. There is an enormous pile of money for the ones who can consistently sack the quarterback. The margins can be so small.
Kaepernick sees this developing, and tries to escape the other way. But the pocket isn’t entirely clean. Kaepernick has to spin away from Tamba Hali, but then has what must look like acres of open field in front of him with a teammate in position to take out the first tackler. Kaepernick’s ability in moments like this is part of why the 49ers chose him over Alex Smith.
Kaepernick cannot get away fast enough, though. Once Houston sheds Martin’s block, it’s two steps and a dive into Kaepernick’s leg. Houston brings him down. Four seconds after this controlled chaos began, it’s time to celebrate.
“Relentless,” Alt says. “You just can’t let a guy like that get going.”
“He just had way more talent than that tackle,” Edwards says. “When this happens to you in a game, the alarm goes off, it’s, ‘We can’t have this happen. We need someone chipping this guy.’”
Justin Houston did not want to talk for this column. He is becoming a bigger presence in the Chiefs’ locker room, but he has never enjoyed talking about himself.
He has a lot to brag on, if he ever caught the mood. J.J. Watt is widely recognized as football’s premier pass rusher and defensive player. He has the commercials, and HBO’s “Hard Knocks” is apparently intent on portraying him as the hardest worker in modern human history.
But as a pass rusher, Houston is in some ways more effective than Watt. Houston is a linebacker, and Watt a defensive end, so comparisons should be taken in context.
But, some numbers: Houston recorded 22 sacks on 392 pass rushes last year. That’s 5.6 percent. Watt recorded 20 1/2 sacks on 671 pass rushes. That’s 3.3 percent.
Using the NFL’s official sack totals and pass-rush stats from the wonderful Pro Football Focus, Houston’s “batting average” is the highest since this data began being collected in 2007. Pro Football Focus has a metric called “pass-rush productivity,” which calculates sacks, hits and hurries, and other than a handful of 4-3 linebackers, no player has scored as high as Houston did last year.
Houston actually didn’t score all that much higher last year than in 2013. By all accounts and appearances, his emergence was more a function of staying healthy and the natural progression of a wildly talented pass rusher in his fourth season.
Smart man, then, to bet on himself.