KANSS CITY, Mo. — Tamba Hali has been the Chiefs’ premier pass rusher since they traded Jared Allen after the 2007 season. Hali might relinquish the title this year to Justin Houston, but if that happens, he said, it may not be a fair competition.
“He’s a better player than me,” Hali said. “He’s younger, he’s quicker, he’s faster; he’s definitely worked on his technique.
“If you let Justin just rush the quarterback, he can get Derrick Thomas’ numbers.”
This season, Houston won’t get anywhere near Thomas’ franchise record of 20 sacks, set in 1990. Houston has 10 this season heading into Sunday’s game against the Raiders in Oakland.
But with a strong finishing push, Houston and Hali, who has eight sacks, could become one of the top single-season pass-rushing combinations in Chiefs history. Thomas and Neil Smith had 291/2 sacks between them in 1990, the club record.
Having a competent pair of pass rushers has made little, if any, difference in their season, but the presence of Houston and Hali can at least allow the 2-11 Chiefs to dream of better days ahead. Their total of 18 sacks to date puts them sixth in the NFL among 1-2 pass-rush tandems.
Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks of San Francisco lead the league with 25; Denver’s Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are close behind them at 24.
“They’re right up there with Denver,” Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer said of Houston and Hali. “It’s unfortunate they’re both in the AFC West, but the AFC West might have the best combinations of pass rushers.”
Perhaps, but the Chiefs failed to sack Palmer when the Raiders beat them 26-16 in October at Arrowhead Stadium. It was one of two games this season in which neither Houston nor Hali registered a sack.
“We did a really good job and that doesn’t happen very often,” Palmer said. “We don’t assume that to happen again. Just knowing the type of player those guys are and the type of people they are, they’re coming in here hungry. They know what happened last time. So we know we’re going to get their best effort.”
From the time they traded Allen, the Chiefs have tried to develop a pass rusher who could complement Hali. Wallace Gilberry did an acceptable job for a couple of seasons and even delivered a four-sack game against St. Louis in 2010.
But Houston looks like he has staying power. Drafted by the Chiefs in the third round last year, he finished the 2011 season with 51/2 sacks in the Chiefs’ last five games.
He has almost matched that pace this season and has been ahead of Hali since the season-opening game against Atlanta.
“Justin gets frustrated when he’s in coverage too much because he knows he can probably take this thing easily,” Hali said. “He could be on pace for 20 sacks this year. I told him to be patient. His time will come.”
Hali topped out at 141/2, his sack total in 2010, when he led the AFC. He had 12 last year. This season, if he doesn’t finish strong, he’ll have his first single-digit sack total since 2009, when he had 81/2.
He narrowed the margin in his race with Houston by sacking Cleveland quarterback Branden Weeden twice last week, but having another capable rusher alongside him hasn’t helped his numbers.
“It means I could be out of here,” Hali said, roaring with laughter. “They might not want me around anymore.”
Then, getting serious, he said, “It’s a good thing. It’s good to have someone knowing if you’re not motivated, someone else will motivate you. It’s pleasing to know we can still get two guys to the quarterback and create havoc in the backfield.”
For his part, Houston is the first Chiefs player other than Hali with double-digit sacks since Allen led the NFL in 2007.
“That means a lot, that Tamba would say that about me,” Houston said. “I don’t feel I’m better than him. I’ve been in better situations this season to make a play, so I can’t say that. But am I trying to let him catch me? No.”
To Hali as well, their competition is friendly — but only up to a point.
“I’m not just OK where I am,” Hali said. “I’m a competitor. If I could lead our team in sacks, I hope he understands that I’m going after him. We’re definitely competing for sacks.”