It’s no surprise that the quarterback the Chiefs will try to thwart this week, the Arizona Cardinals’ Drew Stanton, has pored over tape of the Chiefs’ dispiriting 29-16 loss to the Broncos on Sunday.
In the same vein, it’s also not a surprise that Stanton has a clear recollection of C.J. Anderson’s 15-yard touchdown reception from that game, in which the Broncos caught the Chiefs in a bad coverage — outside linebacker Justin Houston had man-to-man coverage with the slippery Anderson, who beat him over the middle on an angle route.
But if you assume Stanton considers Houston’s pass defense to be a weakness on account of that play, think again. Stanton says there aren’t many, if any, outside linebackers in the game that could have stayed with Anderson on that play.
“I know exactly what you’re talking about, where he’s sitting there underneath and he’s got great leverage and he thinks he has help inside, too,” Stanton said of Houston. “He’s trying to funnel everything back to the safeties.
“That was just a great play by the running back to be able to do that and get to the end zone.”
In fact, Houston’s athleticism has allowed defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to deploy him in coverage a fair amount over the last season. According to Pro Football Focus, in 2013 Houston dropped into coverage 113 times in 783 snaps, an average of once every 6.9 snaps. This year, he’s dropped into coverage once every 6.3 snaps.
By comparison, teammate and fellow pass-rusher Tamba Hali has dropped into coverage an average of once every 11 snaps the last two seasons, a noticeable difference when you consider Houston has more sacks — 25 to 16 — over the same period in four fewer games.
“When it comes time to work on my craft, I try to be good at everything so I won’t have a weakness,” Houston said. “I take it personally.”
In fact, Anderson’s touchdown catch marked the first time all season, and only the second time in his career, that Houston was beaten in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I always say that one of the parts of Justin’s game that goes unnoticed — and he’s obviously a great rusher — but all the other things he does for us,” Sutton said. “Justin’s one very smart guy. He can play a lot of positions for us, we can move him around week to week and ask him to do certain jobs and he can do it.
“That gives us a lot of flexibility, and it’s great for him, because you can’t peg him in and say ‘He’s going to be here, he’s going to be there.’”
Houston’s 122 coverage snaps is the fourth-most in the league this year among 3-4 outside linebackers, behind the Jets’ Calvin Pace (172), the Eagles’ Connor Barwin (168) and Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds (124).
Houston has allowed seven receptions on 10 targets for a mere 45 yards, and he’s been targeted the second-least, on average, among any of the 12 players at his position with at least 80 coverage snaps.
“He’s done a really good job in coverage,” Sutton said. “He understands, conceptually, the coverage and the ways being attacked. So that really helps him, and I think he’s just a really good all-around football player.”
The quarterback whom Houston, the league’s leader in sacks with 14, will be trying to corral this week agrees.
“Yeah, you know he’s very dynamic,” Stanton said. “They do a good job of moving him around, too. They put him and Tamba (Hali) on the same side, they do stuff and then he’s not the only guy you have to worry about. All four of those guys have the ability to get after the quarterback. You can’t just play wide protection on them because then you’re creating a mismatch for other guys. You’re trying to double team them, but there’s only so many guys you can try and double team.
“We’re conscious and aware of where he is on every single snap.”
That, however, doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to block him, thanks in part to Sutton’s willingness to move Houston and Hali around.
“The advantage is, one thing is that if you know where you’re at, they have a protection plan, too,” Sutton said. “The good thing about Justin is he plays on the right side, on the left side, sometimes he’s inside. He’s been a nose tackle, he’s been everywhere. And I think that’s all a plus for him because it’s hard to scheme with protection to get an extra blocker for him. He’s done a good job, as Tamba has, in that area.
“You might recognize the car, but you’re not gonna get the plate number,” Sutton concluded with a laugh.
For Houston’s part, he’s perfectly willing to do whatever the staff asks him to do, even if it takes him away from his preferred path as a pass rusher.
“If you get an interception, (it’s fun),” Houston said with a laugh. “But if you ask me what I want to do, of course I want to rush the passer.”
After all, it’s much easier for a 6-foot-3, 250-pounder to chase a quarterback than a speedy running back out of the backfield, as he found out against the Broncos on Sunday.
“Coming to balance,” Houston said, when asked for the toughest part about dropping back in coverage. “You’ve got to come to balance and force them one way. If you shoot your gun (one way), it can cause a problem.”
Stanton, however, doesn’t see that happen many times to Houston.
“I think feeling that zone out, you either see him grabbing guys man to man or on the tight ends out of the backfield and that stuff,” Stanton said. “He is a very savvy player in that regard too, because he is aware of his strengths and his weaknesses in what he can do in coverage in trying to funnel guys in and do stuff, and he’s also very athletic in being able to get to his zone that he has to drop to, as well.”