Analysis Notebook: Week 15
We all know Justin Houston is pretty good. It occurred to me while watching the Chiefs take out the Raiders this week that I may have been guilty of significantly underrating him for a while now. I’ve just allowed him to settle into this happy space of being a pretty good player in my mind without noticing that he has still been getting better over the past couple of seasons. He started off as a happy complement to their primary pass-rusher Tamba Hali. He soon became Hali’s equal, and then surpassed him, but now he is legitimately one of the best pass-rushers in the league… at any position.
That last part kind of snuck up on me.
It’s true to say that the Raiders aren’t the league’s leading light when it comes to pass protection, but they are a long way from the worst unit out there as well. I say this because I’m going to be using some plays from that game to highlight Houston’s play and it would be all too easy for people to dismiss it as ‘only beating the Raiders’. 14 teams have allowed more total pressures than Oakland’s offensive line, despite pass blocking for a rookie quarterback all season. Donald Penn is 23rd in PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency metric this season, a pretty respectable spot.
Regardless, Houston has been doing this against all teams this year. He was blanked as a pass-rusher against Denver in Week 2, but after that he has not been held to fewer than three total pressures in a game, and has seven games of six or more pressures. He has 77 total pressures this season, 19 more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker and more than any player in the league not named J.J. Watt.
Let that sink in for a moment. Only J.J. Watt, a player who is playing at an all-time level of dominance, has more total pressures than Houston does this year. Any other pass-rusher you can think of is trailing in his wake. It’s not a case of volume of attempts either. PFF’s Pass Rushing Productivity score measures pressure on a per-snap basis with sacks weighted more heavily, and Houston tops all recognized pass-rushers with a score of 15.7. Better than Watt, better than Von Miller, better than any 4-3 defensive end or interior rusher.
You can make the case that Justin Houston has been the best pass-rusher in the league this season. OK, I think that case would get thrown out and Watt deserves that honor, but to even be able to make the case with the season Watt is having is in itself significant.
But let’s take a look back at that Raiders game to see the kind of impact he has been having.
The first play is a regulation sack, but what I loved about it is how he continues fighting through some pretty dodgy contact from the right tackle Khalif Barnes, which could easily have drawn a flag.
He beats him inside initially, but isn’t safisfied with generating pressure, he wants to finish the play and get the sack.
The second play is a great example of how pressure can affect plays without showing up on any box score. The Raiders want to run a screen on this play, and Houston is going to attack LT Donald Penn from his outside alignment with an inside move. Given the screen they are trying to set up this is the one thing Penn can’t allow happen, and yet he still isn’t able to stop it.
Houston gives him a quick fake outside before diving underneath and though Penn does a solid job of getting contact on him, Houston is able to fight through that contact and drive towards the quarterback. The significance of this is how fast it happens. He essentially forces the ball to come out well before it should, screwing the timing of the play up and almost causing a turnover.
At the point Houston forced that ball to come out the running back hasn’t even uncovered, and Carr is throwing essentially blind and to a spot. As it happens the back never gets turned in time to see the ball and it bounces off his pads only to be dropped by Jaye Howard (#96).
Sacks are what every pass-rusher chases, but pressure can have a direct affect on the game and can create even bigger plays on occasion. Here the Chiefs almost benefitted from a turnover entirely because Houston was able to generate almost instant pressure inside on a screen, getting in the quarterback’s face before he was ready to deliver the pass.
Perhaps the most significant step in Houston’s development, though, has been that the Chiefs have been moving him around more of late. Great pass-rushers only become more difficult to contend with when you need to find them first on any given snap. It is far easier to plan to neutralise one player when you can be certain where he will line up on every snap. When he starts moving around, you’ve got bigger problems.
In this game against Oakland, the Chiefs were deploying a pass-rushing trio of Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Dee Ford along with Vance Walker as the fourth rushing man on the line. Houston was the player that would be moved around to accommodate the other rushers.
Here we see him aligned to the inside, with Ford outside as the left outside linebacker. It is still a wide alignment, reminiscent of Michael Bennett in Seattle, but his rush path will be attacking the guard and not the tackle, which is the significant feature of the deployment.
Overall Houston had 10 total pressures in this game from his pass rushing snaps, exactly one third of the defense’s total and significantly better than any other Chiefs player.
It may have snuck up on me but it’s time to reassess how we view Justin Houston. He isn’t just a very good pass rusher, but he may be the best true edge rusher in the NFL this season, and the best pass rushing threat outside of JJ Watt. That my friends is a pretty impressive statement, and means his season should be generating far more attention than it has been so far.
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