ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — The Chiefs took a giant step backward last season, but not all of their players went that direction. Justin Houston emerged as one of the NFL’s best young linebackers and was rewarded for it by being chosen to the AFC’s Pro Bowl team.
The Chiefs see Houston making another leap forward this year.
“There’s no reason,’’ defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said, “that he can’t continue to build on what he did.’’
Even if Houston does continue to progress, it might not mean a huge jump in sacks. He went from 5 1/2 sacks as a rookie in 2011 to 10 last year, when Houston passed Tamba Hali to lead the Chiefs.
The Chiefs intend to pressure the quarterback more than they did last season and Houston will be a big part of those plans. But Houston is a more versatile player than Hali and will again drop into pass coverage more than Hali.
“The thing about Justin is that he does all three phases pretty good,’’ Sutton said. “He’s a good run defender, he’s becoming a much better pass defender and that makes him a real weapon for us on defense.
“This (defensive scheme) fits his style. He’s not a one-dimensional player. That isn’t all he does is rush the passer. That gives us a lot of potential, a lot of things we can do where you can use these guys (in different ways) and we’re going to use him and Tamba like that.’’
Houston’s sack total put him in the Pro Bowl. He was eighth in the AFC in sacks last season.
But the Chiefs ask more from Houston than just chasing after the quarterback.
“That’s what I try to do,’’ Houston said. “I try to be good at everything and not just be (one-dimensional). I came in with the mindset of just being a pass rusher but a lot of the great guys can do more than one thing. That’s what I want to do.’’
Houston, going into his third NFL season, is reaching the point of his career when the development of pass rushers often accelerates. It didn’t work that way for Hali, who didn’t become an elite pass rusher until his fifth NFL season in 2010, after the Chiefs went to a 3-4 defense and moved Hali to outside linebacker from defensive end.
Houston is much more gifted than Hali, who does much of his work with relentless effort. Houston does much of his with seemingly little effort.
“He’s a guy you have to deal with if you’re on offense,’’ Sutton said. “He’s a physical rusher. He has the ability to go around you. He’s got the power to take a guy back. So he’s an outstanding pass rusher.’’
Houston had one more sack than Hali last season, though he rushed the quarterback on a smaller percentage of plays than Hali. Hali conceded he won’t catch Houston in the sack race, though he will continue to try.
“Justin to me is a good pass rusher,’’ Hali said. “He’s learned a lot of techniques in rushing the passer. He’s a physical guy.
“In our game, you’ve got to continue to work at it and you’ve got to gain confidence and I think he’s established that. He’s just got to build on it.’’
Another telling statistic about Houston is that despite fewer opportunities he knocked down the opposing quarterback 18 times as opposed to 15 1/2 times for Hali. That means he’s affecting more passes than Hali.
“A lot of times, people tie sacks to being a good rusher,’’ Sutton said. “There are a lot of times where you’re a great rusher and you don’t get a sack but you force a throw to be (out of) rhythm or you force a quarterback to move off his spot, so there are a lot of parts there.’’