INDIANAPOLIS – Five years ago, Justin Houston finished one-half sack shy of Michael Strahan’s single-season NFL record.
It was a remarkable individual effort that landed Houston his lone first-team all-pro selection during his eight outstanding seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
He’s rightfully proud of that performance, but individual recognition isn’t why Houston plays the game.
With 78.5 career sacks, he’s by far the leader on a young and talented Indianapolis Colts defense this year. But he believes his impact will be measured by far more than the raw number of times he takes down the opposing quarterback.
“That’s what they say I’m known for,” Houston said Thursday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. “If I was a stat guy, that year I had 22 sacks, by the end of the season I’d have been rushing (the passer) instead of dropping into coverage. I’d be shooting for that sack record. But whatever the team tells me to do, that’s what I’m down to do.”
It’s a safe bet Houston will be asked to rush the quarterback plenty in 2019.
Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 scheme allows the 30-year-old Georgia native to switch from outside linebacker to defensive end. Along with that transition comes a more aggressive role.
Houston still will be asked to set the edge in the running game and to bring a physical presence to a defensive line that runs 10 players deep. But he’ll be freed up more often than ever to get after the quarterback.
Eberflus generated much of Indianapolis’ pressure last year through creative blitzes and inventive disguise in the defensive secondary.
With Houston on board, the task should become less difficult.
The focus is less on the number of sacks the veteran personally records than on his overall impact on the opposing passing game.
“If (a sack) happens twice in one game, that’s a pretty good game,” Eberflus said. “But the effect that you have as a pass rusher, the pressure that you create through the push of the pocket and then your presence being there, I think, is really big because you create chips, double teams and different things that you have to do to help a particular player (as an offense), and that frees up somebody else. We’re excited about having (Houston) out there.”
There’s already been some evidence of Houston’s potential influence.
During the Week 2 preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, he swapped sides with second-year pass rusher Kemoko Turay prior to the snap.
The left tackle who had been facing Houston for the first series-and-a-half suddenly found himself with a completely different matchup. And Turay took advantage, using his speed and agility to sprint into the backfield for a third-down sack.
“We try to do whatever is best for us as a team to make all of us succeed,” Turay said.
That’s really the extent of Houston’s goals.
When he was looking for a new home after being released by Kansas City, his relationship with Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard helped him find a soft landing spot.
Houston trusts Ballard, who worked in the Chiefs’ front office from 2013-16, and felt comfortable with the role he was being asked to play for the Colts.
It’s part mentor, part enforcer, and it’s gone according to plan thus far.
Houston will make his Indianapolis debut Sunday against a familiar opponent on the road against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Left tackle Russell Okung will miss at least the first six weeks of the regular season after being placed on the non-football illness list as he recovers from a pulmonary embolism.
But Houston doesn’t expect that to affect the challenge the Chargers’ offense represents.
“They still got plenty of talent there,” he said. “Their offensive line is good. (Quarterback Philip) Rivers is a very smart guy, so he’ll know how to put his guys in position to make plays.”
Houston has faced off against Rivers twice a year throughout his NFL career, so he knows the veteran passer well.
But he hasn’t offered much input into this week’s game plan.
He didn’t need to.
“The coaches here, they’re great coaches,” Houston said. “So anything I had in mind, they knew before I even said anything. They were well prepared. They’re great coaches, so it’s easy.”
That sort of praise is a common theme with Houston.
He’s enjoyed his first few months in Indianapolis, and he wouldn’t change anything about his decision to sign here.
The sudden retirement of Andrew Luck came as just as big a shock to him as it did the rest of the locker room.
He still has faith in new starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett and in the culture he’s joined this season.
“This is a special team,” Houston said.