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Awesome PFF writeup on Justin Houston
In a weekend of shock and intrigue perhaps no result was more shocking and intriguing than the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory in New Orleans. Overturning an 18-point third-quarter deficit to take down the Saints in overtime, the Chiefs put together a stunning defensive performance late in the game that allowed their offense to slowly claw back in and eventually clinch the victory.
From that defensive performance a new star was born and announced his presence to the entire league. If you were to ask most NFL fans to pick a defensive star for the Chiefs prior to Sunday, most would have named Tamba Hali or Brandon Flowers, but it was second-year outside linebacker Justin Houston who stole the show this week. After a strong finish to his rookie season, Houston exploded onto the national scene with what can only be described as the most important individual performance in a game that gave the Chiefs their first victory.
This week in Marquee Matchups we’re going to take a look at the impact Houston had on that game and how he got the better of one of the league’s top right tackles from last season, Zach Strief.
Q2 11:33 – 3rd-and-19
The Chiefs’ defense got off to a slow start in this game or, depending upon your perspective, the Saints looked more like their usual selves. On the opening two drives of the game, the Saints’ offense was only once forced into third-and-long, neutralizing the impact of Houston and Tamba Hali.
This third and extra long play, following a sack by Derrick Johnson, was Houston’s first chance to really get into the game and he took the opportunity to fire a warning shot at Strief and Drew Brees. Rushing from a three-point stance for one of only five times in the game, Houston got underneath Strief quickly and drove the Saints’ RT immediately back to Brees. In spite of Strief’s attempt to re-anchor, he was on skates and Houston’s disruption forced a dumpoff to Pierre Thomas who was taken down well short of a first down. Strief and Brees were on notice.
Q2 06:36 – 3rd-and-7
For the second straight drive, Houston made an impact on a third-down play to usher the New Orleans offense off the field, and again he bested Strief from a three point stance. As with the previously noted play, Houston was quickly under the pad level of the larger offensive tackle and again rocked Strief back. This time the Saints’ RT re-anchored against the drive, but was off balance and Houston reacted quickly with a push-pull move as Strief attempted to drive back. This brought Strief tumbling to ground and Houston stepped off of the block to get after Brees at the back of the pocket. Hitting the Saints signal-caller and forcing an off-target pass, New Orleans posted a three-and-out for the second consecutive drive.
Q2 01:11 – 3rd-and-7
After those two quick exits for the Saints’ O, the Chiefs were put on the back foot again to end the half as New Orleans put together a near four-minute drive which included four first downs and took the Saints from their own 20 to the Chiefs’ 9-yard line. But that’s where it stopped and once again Houston was the key contributor, this time showing the tenacity that goes with his ability to immediately disrupt a play.
The Chiefs chose not to flood the short field with coverage, bringing five rushers initially (though Hali later picked up Pierre Thomas out of the backfield), but unlike the last two drives Houston couldn’t make a first-strike impact one-on-one against Strief. However, Houston repaid his coverage defenders with his pass rush persistence. Initially sent outside and around the pocket by Strief, Houston kept working and eventually fought off the block to sack Brees as he slid left. Saints’ kicker Garrett Hartley subsequently missed what proved to be a decisive 38-yard field goal off the back of this sack and the Chiefs went in to half time down only four points.
Q3 14:51 – 1st-and-10
The Chiefs got off to a fairly dreadful start to the second half, not only losing possession of the football, but also versatile slot man Dexter McCluster to an elbow injury. While their defensive drive would yield a touchdown, Houston at least got it off to a strong start. On one of his 11 coverage drops in the game, Houston picked up the flat and showed his ability to make a play on the ball while moving backward.
Whether Brees expected Houston to be coming after him rather than manning the flat is unclear, but what was clear was the Chiefs’ defender’s break on the football. Driving into the flat he broke up the pass as it reached Pierre Thomas on his flare route, only a step away from an even bigger play.
Q4 08:32 – 2nd-and-11
As the Chiefs drew themselves back into the game, Houston got ready for his star turn with another play in coverage, this time reacting to and closing on speedy back Darren Sproles releasing into the right flat from a stunted jet motion. Houston closed quickly as Sproles bobbled the catch and took the Saints’ speedy back down, ensuring he could not bring the pass in and get upfield. You won’t see this play in any highlight reel, but Houston’s ability to read, react, and get to Sproles as he juggled the ball does highlight what a rounded player Houston is, not just a one-dimensional pass rusher.
Q4 08:27 – 3rd-and-11
On the very next play Houston brought that pass rush ability back to the fore. With the Saints in third-and-long for the first time since the start of the third quarter, Houston finally got a chance to really go at Strief again and he capitalized on a stunt run by himself and Derrick Johnson. From an outside alignment, Houston paid little attention to a weak chip block from Sproles (who was aligned tight to the offensive line) and rocked Strief back before driving through his inside shoulder to get into the backfield. With Johnson looping to the outside, right guard Jahri Evans was unable to contain Houston inside and Brees could not escape. Houston was not denied his sack on the play and it started the domino effect towards his biggest impact on this game.
Q4 05:40 – 2nd-and-12
After a Chiefs’ three-and-out just outside field goal range, the Saints were parked back in the shadow of their own goal posts. A negative rush pushed them even closer to the goal line and Houston stole the show with a sack to put a pivotal two points on the board for the Chiefs.
The Saints went to the shotgun with an empty backfield and, with Brees aligned inside his own 3-yard line, Houston had to know the ball would be coming out quickly. He responded with a speed move that left Strief stranded as he set up to protect against the power moves that had left him wanting earlier in the game. The Saints’ RT reached for the Chiefs LOLB as he came off of the edge and Houston simply swatted his hands down and drove to the outside on a bee-line for Brees, now dropped back inside his own end zone. Pressure from Tamba Hali on the opposite side ensured that Brees couldn’t escape and, despite the QB’s best efforts to get rid of the ball, Houston dragged him down for the safety.
Many young pass rushers are over reliant on one dominant move, but Houston showed in three plays in this game just how to set up an opposing blocker. He used the physical dominance he exerted over Strief with a hurry and a hit in the second quarter to set up this outside move. Doing so proved that you can make big plays off of the edge without the terrifying speed rush of a player like Cameron Wake or Houston’s teammate, Hali.
Not Just a Flash in the Pan
Kansas City fans haven’t had much to get excited about this season, but in Houston they have one of the league’s form players at outside linebacker. Since he entered the starting lineup in Week 11 of last season, Houston’s overall grade is an extremely impressive +18.8, a grade that would have had him among the Top 10 3-4 outside linebackers in the league in each of the past four seasons.
What he illustrates with this performance is not only an ability to make occasional big plays, or feast on outmatched talent, but the skill, technique, and temperament to have big games against some of the best tackles in the league. He flashed raw physical talent, but the technique he showed in the methodical build up to the crescendo that was a scoring play was a delight to see from a second-year player.
The Chiefs may be off to a slow start, but if Tamba Hali can re-discover his best and most destructive form, then not many offensive tackles and quarterbacks will be queuing up to face him and the Chiefs’ new defensive star, Justin Houston, over the coming months of the 2012 NFL Season.