While on the Chiefs’ team bus headed for last Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh, outside linebacker Justin Houston shared a personal goal with teammate Kevin Vickerson.
Houston, on the precipice of matching or breaking Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas’ hallowed franchise record of 20 sacks, realized the significance of that magic number.
“He said how he wanted to be a Hall of Famer and put on a yellow jacket,” Vickerson said. “That’s big coming from a young player. … Seeing a young guy talk like and actually make strides on doing it is real rare. Some guys are just happy to be in the NFL, and he wants to make a legacy and make a name for himself.”
Houston recorded his NFL-leading 18th sack of the season at Pittsburgh. He enters Sunday’s regular-season finale against San Diego not only two shy of matching Thomas’ single-season team record set in 1990, but can become just the 10th player in NFL history with 20 sacks in a season.
Of the nine players who have 20 or more sacks in a season, five — Michael Strahan, (NFL record 22 1/2 in 2001), Reggie White (21 in 1987), Chris Doleman (21 in 1989), Lawrence Taylor (20 1/2 in 1986 and Thomas — are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And three others still active — Jared Allen (22 in 2011), J.J. Watt (20 1/2 in 2012) and DeMarcus Ware (20 in 2008) — are possible candidates for Canton.
“I told him you’re doing something remarkable,” said Chiefs fellow outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who ranks third on the club’s all-time list with 79 1/2 sacks and had a single-season best 14 1/2 in 2010. “If we just look at 20-plus sacks in the history of football, not many guys can do that. I tell him, he’s doing something great.”
Houston declined interview requests on Wednesday, but his teammates left little doubt they want to see him shatter the mark.
“Would I like for him to get it?” Hali said. “It’s up to him. We love Derrick, but Houston can make his mark. I’d love for him to make his mark.”
No player in NFL history has 20 sacks in more than one season, but Houston, 25, would appear to be a prime candidate to break that barrier. Of the nine players with 20 sacks in a season, only Thomas and Watt were younger. Both were 23.
“It’s hard,” said Hali, who has double-digit sacks in three of his nine NFL seasons. “If you’re a 10-sack guy, you’ve just played two seasons in one. Sometimes you have to get help. The coaches have to put you in position. … With Houston, it’s natural. Everything he’s learned, he’s put it together, and it’s natural coming off the ball and getting to the quarterback.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who was sacked three times by Thomas and finished his career as a teammate with the Chiefs, sees some similarities between Houston and Thomas.
“Houston’s got a great combination of speed and power,” said Moon, now a radio analyst for the Seattle Seahawks, whom the Chiefs defeated last month. “He’s very athletic for a guy who’s 260 pounds. He can run around guys but he can also bull-rush you and take you right back to the quarterback.
“He’s a hard guy to prepare for, and he has a motor. He never gives up, like Derrick. With Derrick, you’d push him by the quarterback, and you think you’ve got him out of the way. The next thing you know, he’s circling around and swatting the ball out of my hands. Justin is the same way. Probably not as fast as Derrick, but the same kind of determination to get to the quarterback … and if he can’t get to the quarterback, he’ll jump in the air and knock passes down.”
Houston has amassed 44 1/2 career sacks in just 58 games, and as a mark of his consistency, has at least one sack in 12 of the Chiefs’ 15 games.
“Justin’s a beast,” Vickerson said. “He can play the run and the pass. He’s a great leader, a vocal leader. He shows it by his actions too, by going out and laying it on the line like he does every week. There’s consistency in his level of play and his preparation is good. He does a lot of film study, and he communicates with the group about what he sees and what he thinks is coming. He’s got a good knack for picking that up. Justin, in my eyes, might be the MVP of the defense.”
Houston has enjoyed a career season in the final year of his contract. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, though the Chiefs could affix the franchise tag on him for somewhere between a guaranteed $13 million and $15 million for 2015.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who signed a long-term contract extension at the start of this season, admires how Houston has been able to separate the business aspect from the football side.
“Hats off to him that he’s been able to zero in to have that distraction hanging over your head and focus in,” Smith said. “The biggest thing that everybody in this locker room would say is what a team-first guy Justin is. He hasn’t let it become a distraction at all. I think everybody respects him for that.”
Smith is glad he hasn’t had to face Houston’s wrath as a pass rusher.
“Certainly, to be sitting there watching from the sidelines and seeing what he’s doing, he’s just relentless,” Smith said. “He plays such good football in all situations. Those guys only get noticed for sacks, and deservedly so for some of that, but how he plays on first and second down, how he plays the run. He’s really an all-down player.”
Houston has been that way since his college days at Georgia, where he had 20 career sacks in three seasons, including 10 in his final year.
“He was an animal back at Georgia,” Chiefs rookie quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I was on the scout team, and he would give me problems 24/7. I never could get a pass off with him at defensive end.
“He works hard every day in practice. I saw him in the offseason in Atlanta training hard every day. When you put in the work in this league, when it comes to film study, to practice, to training, you’re going to get results. And he’s seeing them this year.”
The Star’s Tod Palmer contributed to this story.