The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is the part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2012 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Kansas City Chiefs, that player is outside linebacker Justin Houston.
The Chiefs have one of the best pass rushers in the league, Tamba Hali, but he’s the only good pass rusher they’ve had for the past few years. Hali turned in another strong season in 2011, ranking 4th on ProFootballFocus among rush linebackers and producing 12 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 41 quarterback pressures on 459 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 13.7%. However, the Chiefs only had 29 sacks.
In 2010, he had 19 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 68 quarterback pressures on 583 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 15.9%. The Chiefs did manage 46 sacks, including playoffs, but nickel rusher Wallace Gilberry with 7 was the only other player on the team with more than 3. In 2009, he had 9 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures on 449 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 12.9%, but only Gilberry with 6 had more than 2 and the Chiefs managed 26 as a team. They haven’t had another good pass rusher in years in the starting lineup.
That could change this year. The Chiefs used a 3rd round pick on Justin Houston in the 2011 NFL Draft and he could prove to be a steal. Houston has 1st round talent and was frequently projected there before news of his failed Combine drug test surfaced. Houston appears to have put that behind him. He worked his way into the starting lineup last season and had 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures on 207 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 10.6%.
He played every snap except one from week 11 on and had most of his production in those 7 games, with 6 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures on 151 pass rush snaps, a rate of 12.6%. It’s no coincidence that the Chiefs had 20 of their 29 sacks in those 7 games. As a full time starter in 2012, he could definitely have double digit sacks and his presence in the lineup as a 2nd pass rush threat will make this a much better pass rush.
He’s also great against the run, ranking 5th at his position on ProFootballFocus against the run. He had 45 solo tackles, 32 stops, 2 assists, and 2 missed tackles. In his final 7 games, he had 24 solo tackles, 21 stops, 1 assist, and 1 missed tackle on 227 run stopping snaps. He’s a legitimate every down linebacker who can do something very well on each type of down.
The one issue with Houston is that the Chiefs love dropping the opposite rush linebacker into coverage. When Mike Vrabel was the starter, that made sense because he could cover as well as he could pass rush, but Justin Houston is terrible in coverage and a great pass rusher. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ worst rated 3-4 outside linebacker in coverage as he surrendered 18 completions on 23 attempts (78.3%) and allowed 274 yards (11.9 YPA).
They have to find some way that he doesn’t have to drop into coverage as much as he did last year, when he dropped on 163 snaps, as opposed to 207 pass rushes. I trust the Chiefs to do that though and that will go a long way towards him getting double digit sacks and breaking out as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
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