KANSAS CITY, Mo. —On their best days, great pass rushers often describe themselves as being in that zone where they simply can't be blocked.
The Chiefs' Justin Houston said he wasn't anywhere near that zone despite getting three of Kansas City's seven sacks in last week's 10-3 win over Chicago.
"Hopefully, I'll have that feeling someday,'' said Houston, a rookie linebacker. "I didn't feel like that (against Chicago).''
Either way, the emergence of Houston as a pass rushing threat is allowing the Chiefs to dream big. With linebacker Tamba Hali as their primary rusher and Houston and others chipping in, the Chiefs have reason to think they can get after New York quarterback Mark Sanchez on Sunday when they play the Jets in East Rutherford, N.J.
"It helps when you have somebody opposite Tamba that can generate some pressure,'' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "That will force teams to reevaluate how they're going to protect against us. Now maybe you can't slide all your protection to Tamba''
The pass rush finally came together for the Chiefs last week against the perfect opponent. The Bears had trouble protecting most of the season and had the inexperienced Caleb Hanie playing at quarterback.
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is more experienced than Hanie but the Chiefs would still be wise to get after him. Sanchez completes a low percentage of his passes and has committed 16 turnovers this season.
"Their rankings on defense don't really do them justice,'' Sanchez said of the Chiefs, who are 22nd in the league in sacks per opponent pass attempt. "They're better than those rankings the way they can pressure the passer and disrupt the throwing lanes.''
The Jets had trouble protecting Sanchez early in the season. Three times he went down four or more times in a game. But he hasn't been sacked in either of the last two games, both Jets victories.
"They have a two-time Pro Bowler protecting him,'' said defensive end Wallace Gilberry, referring to Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. "So there's going to be some difficulty to it. But at the same time, right now, we're humming. We've got our ears pinned back giving it everything we've got. We feel like we're a good unit, too. So what you're going to see is a good offense and a good defense going against each other and the best unit is going to win.''
The lack of a viable rusher to pair with Hali was holding the Chiefs back. They were able to generate pressure sporadically, as when they had three sacks each against Philip Rivers of San Diego and Tom Brady of New England.
But for the most part opposing quarterbacks had plenty of time in the pocket to take care of their business. At one point in the middle of the season the Chiefs were last in the league in sacks.
With seven against the Bears, they moved to 20 for the season and pushed past several other teams.
"They got to Brady a few times, which is hard to do,'' Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "But the seven-sack performance this past week is an indication of how this team really is rushing the passer now. The guy that you have to have your antenna up for is Tamba Hali, and they'll put him all over the place. It's not like he's always going to be on the right or always on the left. They move him all over the place, so we certainly have to know where he's at.''
Houston was an obvious candidate to become an effective pass rusher but when the season began the Chiefs removed him from the game in obvious passing situations. Eventually they have him more of the workload and he's finally started to respond.
"As he has grown through the course of the year, he feels more comfortable about what he's doing and he's able to turn it loose a little more,'' Crennel said. "As he grows and gets more comfortable, he'll get even better. That happens with younger players. After they get halfway through the season, three quarters of the way, they gain a confidence and an understanding of how the game is played and how they need to play their position."