As a newcomer to the Chiefs last spring, offensive tackle Eric Winston wanted to know about this young outside linebacker who was giving him so much trouble.
“I asked, ‘Who is this guy?’ because I couldn’t block him,” Winston said. “Then we go to camp, and I thought maybe when I get some pads on, and it will be different. He gave me some problems in camp, and I consider myself a decent player, and I was having struggles with him.”
Winston is not alone. Second-year outside linebacker Justin Houston is making life miserable for right tackles and opposing quarterbacks all over the NFL.
Through three games, Houston ranks tied for fourth in the AFC with 4.0 sacks, highlighted by his three-sack performance that included a critical safety in last Sunday’s overtime victory at New Orleans.
And during his last eight games, dating to last season, Houston has 9.5 sacks, tied for the second-most in the NFL.
“That’s my job,” Houston said as the Chiefs prepared for Sunday’s game against San Diego. “They brought me in to put pressure on the quarterback.”
Indeed, the Chiefs selected Houston in the third round of the 2011 draft for some much-needed help for Tamba Hali to rush the passer. But a combination of the lockout of the players and Houston’s missing the first two weeks of camp before signing a contract, set him back.
The Chiefs threw him into the starting lineup in three of the first four games, but Houston clearly wasn’t ready, and he didn’t regain his starting spot until week 10. Two weeks later, he collected three sacks at Chicago, and a star was born.
He followed with another sack and 10 tackles a week later against the Jets, and Houston rolled up with 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks in the season finale at Denver, which helped earn him the Mack Lee Hill Award as the Chiefs’ top rookie.
“Last year there was a lot the rookies didn’t learn,” Houston said of the lockout. “I was learning on the go, and as the season progressed I got more comfortable with the scheme and knowing what to do. Not only knowing what you’ve got to do, but what everybody else is doing, makes your job a whole lot easier.”
Houston credits the tutelage of Hali and martial arts instructor Joe Kim for his development as a rusher.
“It’s studying, film work and the things that Joe Kim teaches and also (Hali), he’s a great pass rusher,” Houston said. “He’s been doing it for a while now, and he’s started to throw me his little tips, and I’m using those little tips.”
Certainly, Houston, 6-3, 258, is benefitting from all the attention Hali receives from opposing offenses. Hali, who had a career-best 12.0 sacks last season, has failed to get one in the two games he’s played, but if Houston is getting to the passer, Hali is happy.
“Physically, he’s an athlete, so he’s a freak,” Hali said. “I’ve taught him some of the things Joe Kim has taught me, just being able to flip your hips and be persistent in your rush. People don’t realize how much martial arts plays in what we do, but it does, and he’s really helped me and helped Justin and other guys on the team that believe in what we’re doing.”
Winston said Houston gives a variety of moves for offensive tackles to ponder.
“He’s got a good combination of everything,” Winston said. “He’s got enough power that if you’re going to sit on his outside move, he can bull you into the quarterback. He’s got good quicks, where he can push a tackle inside and come around him. And he’s good with his hands. It’s hard to get your hands on him.
“A lot of teams are going to slide protection to Tamba, and Houston is going to be singled up on some guys he can beat. He gave me some problems in camp, and I consider myself a decent player, and I struggled with him. He’s got the talent and ability to be a double-digit sack guy consistently.”
In Sunday’s game, Hali will have the advantage of going against rookie free agent Mike Harris, so the Chargers likely provide Harris help with a tight end or fullback to double-team Hali. That can leave Houston one-on-one against former Kansas State star Jeromey Clary.
“I’m sure if they’re going to focus on Justin, then I have to step up and make plays,” Hali said. “And if they’re focused on me or anyone else on the team, then it’s Justin. It goes hand-in-hand.
“For us, it’s like the new era of those guys who used to be here – Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith. So we’re trying to get that done here.”