Shortly after his fourth-quarter interception in the Chiefs’ 27-20 win over Philadelphia on Sunday, Chris Jones turned toward veteran teammate Justin Houston and did something you might not expect:
He challenged him.
“I need one –– I need a sack from you,” Jones told Houston, playfully.
He did this purposely. Jones, 23, might be young, but he’s already been around long enough to know that no challenge to Houston, the Chiefs’ 28-year-old All-Pro pass rusher, goes unheeded.
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“50 is one of those players you can’t go up to and be like ‘I need you to do this,’” said Jones, a second-year defensive end. “Because he’ll do it and be like ‘What now?”
That’s exactly what happened, too, as Houston sacked Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz on Philadelphia’s next drive, which led to a three-and-out that helped the Chiefs pull away.
It was an example of the way the Chiefs’ ramped-up defensive line, which terrorized Wentz and New England quarterback Tom Brady during a 2-0 start, has fed off each other.
“Oh we have fun, we compete –– that’s what we do,” Houston said. “We play for each other, this is all about each other. Every time we put on our Chiefs helmet, that’s who we play for.”
The Chiefs, who sacked Wentz six times Sunday, are second in the NFL with nine sacks, a stat that becomes even more impressive because they have primarily used four- and three-man rushes, not their most complex blitzes.
“We’re doing some different things with the defensive ends and varying it, but when four are coming we’re pretty tough,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “And then we’re coming off a six-sack game so that’s not a bad day.”
And while Jones received most of the recognition with three sacks and the interception, Houston consistently set the edge against the run and snuffed out quick passes when asked to drop in coverage.
“Justin really had one of his better games,” Reid said.
Houston –– a four-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro –– accounted for five tackles, five stops and a pass deflection against Philadelphia. For the season, he’s totaled 10 tackles and ranks second in the league with three sacks and with six hurries.
“We’ve got the players that, in any game, can wreck the game –– we’ve got those players across the board,” said fellow outside linebacker Dee Ford, who also had a sack Sunday. “When 50’s in the game, you already know what’s up, it’s just what it is. You can’t do too much to his side.”
Houston celebrated each play he made against the Eagles with particular vigor, slapping hands and hopping around. Teammates can tell how pumped up “50” –– Houston’s nickname in the locker room, which matches his jersey number –– is to be back.
“I know how it is coming off injury –– it gives you some burn, man,” said defensive lineman Allen Bailey, who also was injured last season. “I missed like 11 weeks of football last year, and you’re itching. He’s definitely itching.”
It’s been a long time since Houston has seemed so healthy and bouncy at Arrowhead. Knee issues caused him to miss 16 of 32 possible regular-season games in 2015-16.
Houston is now 18 months removed from arthroscopic knee surgery that was the result of a non-functioning anterior cruciate ligament, and with star safety and team leader Eric Berry out for the season, teammates are looking to Houston for leadership.
“He and Eric are leaders on that side, and he upped it even another notch, which you have to do when you lose a guy like Eric,” Reid said. “The guys bank on him, both sides of the ball.
“He challenges everybody –– he’s not partial. That’s one neat thing about this team, they can get away with challenging each other on both sides of the ball and it works. He’s not shy about that and we appreciate that.”
Reid said he most appreciates Houston’s “positive attitude,” which was on display in the locker room after the game. In his deep, booming voice, he cracked jokes, causing teammates to roar with laughter.
But when the cameras began to swarm for a postgame interview, Houston acquiesced but turned serious. Yes, he was happy with the win. But no, he was not satisfied. The Eagles scored a late touchdown and could have tied the score on the final play of the game.
“I think the defense on that last (touchdown) drive was terrible –– we can’t do that,” Houston said. “To be the team we want to be, a championship team, the championship defense we claim we are, we have to get off the field. It should be three and out. The defense shouldn’t have even been on the field. That should have been the offense kneeling on the ball at the end of the game.”
Then Houston did something the best leaders do: he put the onus on himself.
“That fourth quarter I made a couple of plays but on that last drive, I have to do better,” Houston said. “I’ve got to get in shape. My rushing has to be better. For us to be a better team, we have to do better.”