The sounds radiate from the Chiefs’ practice field long after most players have left for the locker room.
It’s Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston working up a post-practice sweat by pulverizing a padded blocking dummy. He delivers blows with his hands and forearms. Left and right. Over and over again.
THWACK! THWACK! BOP! BOP! BAM!
Houston strikes the dummy from different angles as many as 300 times in pursuit of the perfect pass-rush technique.
“It’s muscle memory,” Houston said. “It’s reacting and a habit of doing it.”
Houston, 25, began the daily drill during the offseason in preparation for the biggest year of his professional career.
Houston, a two-time Pro Bowler, is in the final year of his contract and could be one of the hottest free agents on the market next spring if the Chiefs don’t sign him to a new deal or put the franchise label on him for a one-season guarantee of $13 to $15 million.
“I’ll worry about that at the end of the season,” said Houston. “I can’t let that get in my head at all. I don’t want it to slow me or affect what I’m doing on the field. I just want to continue play as I’m playing and continue to make plays.”
Houston, a muscular, 6-foot-3, 258 pounder, collected three sacks and had six quarterback hurries in the Chiefs’ 34-7 victory over St. Louis last Sunday and leads the NFL with 10 sacks. He’s on pace for 23 sacks, which would break the NFL record of 22 1/2 set by the New York Giants’ Michael Strahan in 2001, not to mention the Chiefs’ record of 20 sacks set by Derrick Thomas in 1990.
“It’s a group effort,” Houston said of his pass rush prowess. “I do a good job of rushing the passer, but also we have great coverage downfield. Sacks don’t come like that where you just beat the guy normally. If you don’t have good coverage downfield, no matter what move I have, or how fast I get back there, that ball will come out.
“My guys are doing a good job covering downfield, so it’s easy for me to get back there.”
Most elite pass rushers collect their sacks in bunches, just as Houston did against the Rams. Thomas racked up an NFL-record seven sacks in one game during his 20-sack season of 1990 and six in another game in 1998.
Though Houston had three sacks against the Rams, the hallmark of his play this season has been his consistency. He has had at least one sack in every game but one — at Denver, where Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is rarely touched.
And since he recorded his first career three sacks against Chicago late in his rookie season of 2011, Houston has 36.5 sacks in 39 career games, including 21 in his last 18 games.
“For someone to get a sack in every game is relatively unheard of in this league. … It can deflate an offense,” said Chiefs backup offensive tackle Jeff Linkenbach, who faced Houston while with Indianapolis and blocks him every day in practice.
“It’s a humbling experience when you’re picking up your quarterback after Justin Houston has driven him to the ground.”
Houston has sacked a Who’s Who of quarterbacks this season, including his first career sacks of San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, San Diego’s Philip Rivers and New England’s Tom Brady.
“It felt real good to get him,” Houston said of Brady. “Anytime you can touch a Hall of Fame quarterback, that’s special. Manning’s real tough. He’s smart, he controls the game. He knows how to use his guys. It’s going to take a lot of effort, but hopefully I can get him.
“It’s a will to get there … how much you want to get there?”
A year ago, Houston had a career-high 11 sacks, and the Chiefs were on pace to set an NFL record for sacks in a single season after a 9-0 start. But Houston missed most of the last six games of the regular season because of an elbow injury, the Chiefs went 2-4 and the sacks dried up.
This year, Houston and fellow outside linebacker and mentor Tamba Hali, with four sacks, have helped the Chiefs rank tied for fourth in the NFL with 24 sacks going into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.
“He’s got great physical skills, there’s no question about that,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said, “but the thing that has taken him to a level that is allowing him to be really successful is he understands the person he’s rushing against. He understands formations … all those little things allow you to play a little bit faster, give you a little bit of an edge.
“It’s not a lot different than what happens in baseball. The pitcher and hitters know what you do well, they know what you don’t do well, and if I can take advantage of that, it’s a huge thing. That tackle is studying you as hard as you’re studying your tackle.”
From the time the Chiefs selected Houston in the third round of the 2011 draft out of Georgia, he has taken his cues from Hali, an indefatigable worker both on the practice field and in the classroom whose 77 1/2 career sacks rank third on the club’s career list behind Thomas (126 1/2) and Neil Smith (86 1/2).
“Tamba taught me how to study a tackle and how to beat a tackle,” Houston said. “That’s the main thing. He spends a lot of time studying them. Most guys don’t get the opportunity to play with a veteran pass rusher who you can learn from.
“I see his effort and the way he moves. … I had an opportunity to learn from one of the best.”
The combination of Houston and Hali creates a dilemma for opposing offenses.
“He’s relentless getting to the quarterback,” Linkenbach said of Houston. “He’s an athletic freak. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong, he has the total package when it comes to rushing the passer. He drops off (in coverage) sometimes … and you have Tamba on the other side, which only helps both of them.
“It’s like a perfect storm of the perfect pass rusher and a legend in his own right on the other side.”
The perfect storm is triggered by the inside pressure of tackles Allen Bailey and Dontari Poe.
“We’ve got a lot of guys …” Sutton said. “Allen Bailey and Dontari have done a great job of pushing inside. When you push inside, there’s nowhere (for the quarterback) to go. The only way you can be successful as a rusher is if you’re tenacious. Very seldom do you do one move and you’re by the guy.
“Justin was getting blocked on the back side (against St. Louis), he split it underneath, and as the quarterback stepped up, he grabbed the quarterback.”
Chiefs rookie quarterback Aaron Murray, a teammate of Houston’s at Georgia, has experienced the wrath of being sacked by Houston.
“All I know is he killed me on scout team,” said Murray, who was three years behind Houston at Georgia. “By the time I caught the snap, he was in my lap, so it wasn’t fun dealing with him.”
Houston has been indoctrinated in the tradition of great pass rushers to play in Kansas City.
Huge photos of Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell, Art Still, Thomas and Smith adorn the locker room of a franchise known as Pass Rush City. He knows Jared Allen led the NFL with 15 1/2sacks as a member of the Chiefs in 2007, and Hali led the AFC with 14 1/2 in 2010.
It’s another reason he hits that blocking sled with such ferocity.
“It tells you his craft is important to him,” Sutton said. “This is your profession, and that’s one of the things he does in his profession. He rushes the passer. You’ve got to be able to work on things on your own. We run out of time in practice. We can’t drill everything down.
“I call it OYO … you’re On Your Own. You have to do that if you want to be good. The key is to keep identifying what you need to work on, not just do the things you do well, but the things that you know, ‘If I do this … I’m a tough guy to handle.’”
The only pass rusher more difficult to handle since Houston burst onto the scene in late 2011 is the Texans’ J.J. Watt, who was AFC Defensive Player of the Year when the NFL with 20 1/2 sacks in 2012 and parlayed that into a six-year, $100 million contract at the start of this season.
What’s the magic number for Houston? Strahan’s 22 1/2? Or would he be satisfied breaking Thomas’ club-record 20? Either one would also likely break the bank.
“One (sack) every week is a magic number,” Houston said with a smile. “Whatever the total will be at the end of the season, I’ll be happy.”