KANSAS CITY — It wasn’t until the middle of last season that Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, the defensive coordinator at the time, finally saw the light come on for linebacker Justin Houston.
The technique, the scheme, the speed of the game — it all clicked one night in Chicago.
The third-round draft pick with the first-round talent finally secured his first sack in Week 13 at Soldier Field, and he hasn’t stopped since. Houston had three that night, a couple more by the end of the year, and already has four sacks through the first three weeks this season.
Three of them came in last Sunday’s overtime victory at New Orleans.
“He had a lot of stuff that he had to learn,” Crennel said. “About halfway through the season, he began to get comfortable with his assignments and what we were asking him to do.”
Houston was a big reason why Kansas City managed to dig out of an 18-point hole against the Saints, and then finish off the biggest comeback in franchise history. His sack of Drew Brees with 5:33 left in regulation resulted in a safety that got the Chiefs within 24-21, close enough for Ryan Succop to bang through the 43-yard field goal that forced overtime.
Succop wound up hitting from 31 yards in the extra session to win the game.
“Truth be told, I didn’t know it was a sack until I got up,” Houston said Thursday, “and everybody was throwing up the sign for a safety.”
Nobody disputes that the talent was always there.
Houston redshirted at Georgia, but made an immediate impact when he finally got on the field. He started 24 of his 36 games over three seasons, flourishing when he moved from defensive end to outside linebacker as the team shifted to a 3-4 defense, similar to what the Chiefs use.
The 6-foot-3, 270-pound pass rusher has underappreciated quickness off the line of scrimmage, and his raw power allows him to shed woebegone offensive tackles seemingly with ease.
In many ways, the only thing holding Houston back was himself.
He was suspended by Bulldogs coach Mark Richt for the first two games of the 2009 season for an undetermined “violation of team rules,” and he slid into the third round of the draft when there were reportedly some character questions raised at the NFL combine.
The Chiefs finally selected Houston to complement to Pro Bowl linebacker Tamba Hali, who has been terrorizing quarterbacks from the other side for years. And any questions about his character have been answered by this simple fact: Houston has been a model teammate since his arrival.
“Right now the red dot is on him,” Houston said of Hali, who parlayed a similar start to his career into a five-year, $60 million contract before last season.
“Hopefully it stays on him,” Houston said, “so I keep getting sacks.”
Houston’s breakout finish last season earned him the Mack Lee Hill Award, given to the club’s top rookie or first-year player, and his first three games this season put him in select company.
His 9 1 / 2sacks since that night in Chicago, a span of eight games, are tied for most in the NFL with Jared Allen of the Vikings and DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys.
“Physically, he’s an absolute freak,” Hali said. “I think Justin is learning how to go about the technique. … The kid is good.”
His production has been invaluable, since Hali was suspended for the season opener for testing positive for a banned substance and has been held without a sack in his first two games back.
“The speed of the game has slowed down,” Houston said. “I feel like I’m doing my job. They brought me in here to put pressure on the quarterback.”
Like most young players, Crennel is keenly aware that Houston would rather pin his ears back and go after the quarterback on every down, rather than drop back into coverage or play the run.
But he still finished with 70 tackles last season, sixth on the team, and is fourth on the team in stops this season. He also is tied for the team league with a couple of pass deflections, a big reason that the Chiefs’ overall defense has improved dramatically from Week 1.
“He understands that in our system we ask him to do more,” Crennel said. “When he does more, he helps the team. I think that’s what he is concerned about, helping this team win.”