PFF’s Top 101 of 2014: No. 3, Justin Houston
2014 was the culmination of three years of development from Justin Houston that this season saw him become one of the league’s elite defensive players.
From the point that he entered the Chiefs’ starting lineup in Week 11 of 2011, Houston showed the ability to be one of the league’s best and most productive 3-4 outside linebackers. He put his two half-seasons of quality play in 2011 and 2012 together into an excellent full 2013 which he used as a springboard for this scintillating 2014 showing. In most other years, Houston’s level of performance and production would have seen him named Defensive Player of the Year.
Houston’s season actually began on somewhat of a quiet note, earning a 0.0 grade through the opening two weeks of the season having been shut out on only 10 pass rushes against the Broncos in Week 2. Looking to counter the Broncos’ quick release passing game the Chiefs had Houston drop into coverage 19 times in their seven-point defeat that set them off to a 0-2 start. From there, however, Houston would grade negatively overall only once (Week 10 in Buffalo) and he recorded at least two pressures in every game.
The consistency of Houston’s season was arguably the most remarkable facet of his play; he earned a positive pass rush grade in 12 of his 16 starts, he recorded multiple knockdowns (hits and sacks) in nine games, only missed four tackles and wasn’t penalized all season. Regardless of the opponent, Houston was productive and destructive for the Chiefs — if you want to be picky about the opposition he faced, you would need to disregard his four highest-graded games for his overall grade to drop near our second-best 3-4 outside linebacker. Such was Houston’s dominance over his opponents and his peers at his position in 2014.
Houston’s dominance was as a pass rusher, but he still graded positively as both a run defender (+8.1) and in coverage (+1.4). That means that throughout his career Houston has only graded negatively in one facet of the game over the course of a season once; his coverage grade during his rookie season. In 2014 he dropped into coverage 158 times but, targeted only 10 times, he surrendered just seven catches for 45 yards, four of those catches coming in one game against the Bills. Meanwhile, in run defense, while his Run Stop Percentage wasn’t terrific, his 22 stops in run defense was bettered by only five other 3-4 outside linebackers and he wasn’t giving up space to opposing running games when he wasn’t getting stops.
When paired with his electrifying pass rush you have a well-rounded edge defender who will, in due course, become one of the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL. His 85 total pressures this season were the most for any 3-4 outside linebacker since 2010 when his teammate Tamba Hali racked up 97 during the regular season (though that came on 77 more pass rushes) and Houston’s Pass Rushing Productivity score of 15.7 surpassed Hali’s score from 2010 as a result.
Further to Houston’s consistency as a pass rusher throughout the season is a balance in how he can defeat opposing blockers to register his pressure. Equally adept at winning inside and out, Houston recorded 25 pressures to the inside of opposing blockers and 33 to the outside. That balance is a hallmark of many top-tier rushers, not having to lean so heavily on the outside rush that they can’t counter off it to the inside even if they aren’t necessarily the most powerful players. Houston does have power to his game, though; his eight bullrush pressures are a solid return for an edge defender, but in converting three of them into sacks (tied for most in the league) he showed that rare ability to truly dominate and disengage from a bullrush to capitalize on those plays.
Only adding to Houston’s repertoire as a pass rusher is his awareness and desire to chase down quarterbacks when others have beaten him to the punch with quick pressure. Playing across from a player like Hali, Houston isn’t always going to be the first man in, but he used that to his advantage registering 12 pressures via clean up or pursuit with more than half of those being converted into hits (two) and sacks (five). Other pass rushers might get drawn into trying to beat everyone else to the quarterback, but Houston has the awareness to break out of his rush when the quarterback is flushed and keep the pressure on him.
However you break down Justin Houston’s game, he is a special pass rusher… and more than that, he’s a special player. As the culmination of his development during his rookie contract, his 2014 season was a year for the ages that was only overshadowed by a once-in-a-lifetime player continuing on his road to Canton. If Houston can continue on his progression or maintain his level of play from the last two seasons, there’s no reason that he won’t be worth the sort of contract that he will surely soon receive, and he could be making his own way to the Hall of Fame with a few more years like this one under his belt.
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