ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — There was nothing really wrong with the “old” Justin Houston.
Since being drafted in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Houston, a quick but burly 270-pound linebacker, has given opposing offenses nothing but headaches.
In 10 starts as a rookie, he recorded 5.5 sacks and forced a fumble. Then last season, a noticeably down one for the Chiefs’ defense, Houston nonetheless stood out, producing 10 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
It was a breakthrough performance that earned Houston a trip to the Pro Bowl.
“But I know I can get better,” Houston says, shrugging his mountainous shoulders.
The Chiefs think so, too, particularly new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
“He’s a guy you have to deal with if you’re on offense,” Sutton says. “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.”
And yes, there is a “but” coming …
“But he is so talented,” Sutton says, “he can do even more.”
Houston agrees. His focus under former defensive coordinator and head coach Romeo Crennel had been to simply clog up the run lanes when necessary, but focus more on getting to the passer.
This year Houston wants to excel in all three phases — stopping the run, rushing the passer and defending the pass.
“I try to be good at everything,” Houston says. “I don’t want to be that guy that’s just good at one thing.”
And so, Houston has hit the books, studying Sutton’s new defensive schemes and learning how he can be most valuable to the new system.
Houston also has been studying film of the great linebackers, guys such as Denver’s Von Miller and Green Bay’s Clay Matthews.
“My mindset is to do more,” Houston says. “I’ve been watching film of other great (linebackers) and they all can do more than one thing.”
And that’s crucial in Sutton’s schemes, which require his linebackers to be athletic enough to cover tight ends down the seam or running backs in the flat.
Sutton sees Houston easily making the transition to the new defense.
“The thing about Justin is that he does all three phases pretty good,” Sutton says. “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.”
Still, Sutton doesn’t want to diminish what Houston does best, and that is blowing up passing plays.
In addition to his 10 sacks last season, Houston also knocked down the quarterback 18 times.
“A lot of times, people tie sacks to being a good rusher,” Sutton says. “There are a lot of times where you’re a great rusher and you don’t get a sack but you force a throw.”
It’s just that Sutton wants a bit more.
“There’s no reason he can’t build on what he already has done,” Sutton says.
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter @jflanagankc or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.