Sam Mellinger

Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston has taken rushing the passer to the highest level

Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston kept a grip on Jets quarterback Michael Vick’s leg for a sack while linebacker Tamba Hali came in to help out in the second quarter Sunday.
Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston kept a grip on Jets quarterback Michael Vick’s leg for a sack while linebacker Tamba Hali came in to help out in the second quarter Sunday. The Kansas City Star

Tamba Hali is standing in front of his locker wearing nothing but shorts, eye black and a few blades of grass from another Chiefs win. He played well, again, but it’s been a few years since the star first understood that he was no longer the Chiefs’ best pass rusher.

That’s usually a hard thing for a proud athlete to recognize and see, let alone vocalize, but Hali has always been different than most of his peers. Besides, the talent he sees while watching tape and the hard work during the week have robbed Hali of any desire to even pretend that Justin Houston isn’t the better player.

But even Hali is noticing something different about his friend. A stronger drive. A clearer focus. More production, obviously. Houston sacked Michael Vick twice during the Chiefs’ 24-10 win over the Jets on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. Houston has 12 sacks halfway through the season, a league-leading total and on pace to break Michael Strahan’s all-time single-season record of 22 1/2.

It’s not just the sacks, either. Houston is also playing the run better than ever, and on the rare times he’s asked to drop back in coverage he has been good there, too. Some of this, surely, is a wildly talented 25-year-old entering his prime in his fourth NFL season.

Hali, though, looks over to his left, nods at his friend, and gives another idea.

“Four years ago, I had to play at a high level because I wanted a new contract and I wanted to be known as one of the best pass rushers in this league,” Hali says. “That’s his mentality, and it’s hard to stop a guy that has that mentality: ‘I want to be paid, I want to play for a good team, and I want to be labeled the best at doing it.’

“Give credit to Justin. The will is getting him there now, and you can’t stop it.”

Other than the Chiefs’ run at making the playoffs after an 0-2 start that included a limp loss to the Titans in the season opener at home, Houston’s contract situation is the biggest and perhaps most important story line of this season.

The Chiefs (literally) bought themselves some leverage with Houston by completing an extension for quarterback Alex Smith just before the season started, which means they can retain Houston for next year for around $13 million with the franchise tag.

But every week, now, the price of an extension the Chiefs need to get done is going up as Houston continues to establish himself as one of the game’s brightest young stars, approaching the level of sack masters J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn.

Those two names are brought up intentionally here, because they’re the most relevant names for Houston’s negotiation now.

Before the season, it was Hali, who signed a five-year, $57.5 million contract with $35 million in guarantees after his best season. That was thought to be a good starting point, but Houston’s play — he has at least one sack in every game but Denver, and Peyton Manning hardly ever gets sacked — is pushing him closer to Watt and Quinn.

Watt signed a market-changing, six-year, $96 million contract with $50 million in guarantees just before this season started. About two weeks later, Quinn signed a six-year, $65.6 million contract with $41.2 million guaranteed. Watt is on another level than any defensive player in football, but he and Quinn both were further from potential free agency than Houston.

Watt and Quinn were each already under contract through 2015, and could have been franchised after that. Houston and his agent also know the Chiefs are set up to have plenty of cap space in future years, and should be motivated to get something done.

Houston has 38 1/2 sacks in his last 40 games, including 22 in his last 19. When Quinn signed his contract, he’d had 29 1/2 sacks in his last 33 games. It’s worth noting that Quinn was coming off a dominating 19 1/2-sack season that according to Pro Football Focus was much better overall than Houston’s current pace for 2014.

Still, Houston is making himself and his agent money every week. Before this season, one of the few knocks on his pass rushing was that he had largely picked on rookies during his breakout 2013 season — three sacks last year against the Jaguars (Luke Joeckel) and 4 1/2 against the Eagles (Lane Johnson).

This year, he’s been remarkably consistent – between one and three sacks in every game, with the exception of Denver.

“He’s in a zone right now,” teammate Dontari Poe says. “As long as he stays in that, I’m happy.”

Houston has had pursuit sacks, like against Tennessee, where his relentlessness showed in taking advantage of the quarterback holding onto the ball too long.

He’s beaten good tackles (according to PFF, Houston is the only player to beat St. Louis’ Joe Barksdale for a sack this year), and ruined otherwise good play-calls by dominating his own matchup (on one play in San Diego, Philip Rivers had maybe 2 1/2 seconds between the snap and covering up after Houston trucked the right tackle).

Houston is well aware of how his play this year is impacting the size of his next contract but says he’s told his agent not to bother him about it until after the season. There was a time, over the summer, where indications from both sides were optimistic about a deal getting done. More recently, there has been nothing to suggest that the sides are anything other than far apart.

The Chiefs could control Houston for $13 million next year, and then perhaps around $17 million for 2016 under the franchise tag. But it’s usually in the best interests of both the team and player to get something done before using the franchise tag. The Texans and Rams showed that with Watt and Quinn, and the Chiefs showed it with Smith, who was also scheduled for free agency after this season.

The Chiefs put themselves in good position for the negotiations with Houston by getting Smith’s contract done, but Houston is raising the price with his play through the first half of the season. With the Chiefs’ cap space, Hali’s advancing age and Dee Ford not making an impact so far, Houston is wrestling back leverage.

You’ve probably noticed that after his sacks, Houston used to cross his arms and do something like a bobblehead dance, his body moving back and forth. This season, he’s putting his palms together and staring toward the sky, usually with a big smile on his face.

He says that’s a reflection of a building importance of faith in his life. He spent a lot of time with a personal trainer this offseason, a man who puts an emphasis on faith in his own life. It rubbed off, and Houston suspects made him a better player.

“It does,” he says. “I play with no fear now. I’m just running around having fun. I’m not even thinking. I see something, I attack. I just go get it. I’m not worrying about anything.”

Whatever it is, Houston is playing the season of his life at the best possible time. With each sack, he makes the league’s all-time single season record more and more realistic.

And if he plays the second half of the season the way he’s played the first, he and his family aren’t going to have any worries for a generation or two.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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