KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The only news that got Alex Smith more excited than learning he’ll be back under center Sunday at Carolina was that linebacker Justin Houston could be back, too.
The Chiefs planned to add the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker to their roster after practice Wednesday, which was the deadline to make the move or put him on injured reserve. And while it’s far from certain that Houston will play against the Panthers, this is the first time all season it has been a remote possibility.
"You’re talking about one of the elite players in the league, especially when it comes to getting after the quarterback," said Smith, who missed last week’s game against Jacksonville with a head injury, "and then his presence and his leadership is something everyone feeds off."
It was a day of mixed injury news for the Chiefs.
Along with Smith returning to the first-team practice, running back Spencer Ware was cleared through the league’s concussion protocol and could play against Carolina. But not joining them on the field was wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who hurt his groin in their 19-14 victory over the Jaguars.
As for Houston, he’s been working out for several weeks, slowly ramping up the load after having surgery in February on a bothersome ACL in his left knee. The injury happened midway through last season and the Chiefs shut him down, thinking at the time it was merely a hyperextension. But he struggled in two playoff games and ultimately required a procedure to repair the ligament.
While the Chiefs (6-2) have ripped off four straight wins, taking off some of the pressure of getting him back on the field, there is no question their pass rush could use his prowess.
They have only 16 sacks, putting them in the bottom third of the league, and nine of those belong to Dee Ford, who will no doubt find it harder to get the same kind of pressure without some help.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Wednesday he’s not sure what his lineup will look like once Houston is back. He praised the jobs Tamba Hali and Frank Zombo have done this season, but the reality is neither has offered much of a pass rush.
Still, that doesn’t mean Reid will rush Houston back onto the field.
"We just want to make sure he’s safe going out there and playing," Reid said late last week. "I’m not sure we probably realize how severe of an injury he has there. This guy has really pushed through. His work ethic has just driven him to this point, right here. He’s been a beast on this thing, so it’s been fun to watch, but tough to push through. He’s done great with it, though."
Meanwhile, Ware’s return couldn’t come soon enough.
Fill-ins Charcandrick West and Knile Davis were largely stuffed by the Jaguars last Sunday, and now Kansas City is preparing to face one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. The Panthers are allowing 77.5 yards rushing per game, third best in the league, and Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and the rest of them are tops in the NFL when it comes to yards per carry.
Smith should also help in that respect. He is more elusive than backup Nick Foles, who did just enough to help Kansas City beat the Jaguars, though Smith is running less this season than in past years.
Smith said missing one week shouldn’t slow him down, either. He ran the scout team most of last week, so he was still getting work in, and warmed up on game day as if he was the starter.
"It’s nice to have done that last weekend," he said, "be able to kind of move forward like normal."