Houston ready to find form again after injury troubles
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes II dropped back to pass during a recent Chiefs practice, and before the new quarterback even had time to set up, fearsome pass rusher Justin Houston was staring him in the eyes.
Without Mahomes turning his back, either.
The four-time Pro Bowl linebacker has primarily played on the right side during his career, which means he’s been chasing quarterbacks down from their blind side. But his new position coach, Mike Smith, intends to line Houston up opposite the weakest player on an opponent’s offensive line, and often that will mean facing the right tackle rather than the left.
“It doesn’t matter what side. I want to be everywhere,” Houston said this week. “The weakest link is where I want to be. Every team is different. Everybody has a different weak link. So whoever has the weakest link, wherever it is, that’s where I want to be.”
Just so long as it’s on the field.
Houston spent a lot of time on the sideline the last few years as a career that once seemed destined for the Hall of Fame was slowed by injuries. He piled up 22 sacks in 2014, a half-sack shy of the single-season NFL record, and was rewarded with a $101 million, six-year contract that made him one of the highest-paid defensive players in the league.
But after playing well the first 11 games the following season, Houston hyperextended his knee in Week 12, and what seemed like a relatively benign injury had lasting ramifications.
He tried to return in the playoffs but was ineffective in a win over Houston and a divisional loss to New England. And that hyperextended knee turned out to reveal a “non-functioning” ligament, causing Houston to undergo serious knee surgery in February 2016.
He wound up missing the first nine games that season, and after appearing in a handful midway through the year, was shut down until the playoffs. The Chiefs had hoped Houston would be able to help them when it mattered, but he was again ineffective in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
Even last season, when Houston continually professed himself healthy, he never appeared to be going full speed. He was listed as questionable on the injury report twice because of his knee, and he finished the season with 9 sacks in 15 regular-season games.
It wasn’t until training camp, a few weeks back, that he acknowledged “playing on one leg.”
“When you have surgery, and the surgery I had on my knee, it takes time,” Houston said. “As much as you want to be ready, it still takes time to get your pop back and get where you want to be. I think I’m there. I think I’m beyond there right now and it feels great to be back in that feeling.”
His fellow linebackers have noticed, too.
“Justin, he’s starting to really go back to that 22-sack guy, so we have an opportunity to be one of the best (pass-rushing groups) in the league,” Dee Ford said. “People don’t understand how bad his injury was and how he also tried to play, and he tried to come back too fast, and he’s not an excuse guy and you got to really respect that.”
One could argue that nobody is more crucial to the Chiefs’ defense than Houston, given the way the defense has been overhauled. Longtime pass rusher Tamba Hali is gone, and Ford has dealt with his share of injuries, resulting in a precipitous drop in sacks the past couple of years.
Throw in the departure of playmaking cornerback Marcus Peters, who was traded to the Rams in a move designed to improve club morale, and the pressure is on Houston to, well, create some pressure.
“Would you love to have a million sacks? Yeah, I would love that. But the biggest thing is always affecting the quarterback,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Obviously you can affect his timing. You don’t have to sack him. But as long as you are moving him, and making him get off that spot a little bit, then you can affect him.”
Houston should be able to help now that’s moving around more.
Both on his knee and all over the field.
NOTES: OLs Cam Erving (knee) and Eric Fisher (shoulder) left Thursday’s practice with “tweaks,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. Mitchell Schwartz moved from RT to LT, Andrew Wylie took over at RT and Bryan Witzmann took over at LG. … The Chiefs are off Friday before resuming camp on Saturday.