Justin Houston offers up hope for Chiefs defense


The 2017 season has offered us many twists through its first two months. We expect nothing less of football. However, watching the Andy Reid-led Chiefs manned by Alex Smith transforming into an offense-first team was far off the script of anyone's preseason predictions.

Yet, that's exactly what we've seen from Kansas City through the first half of the regular season. If anything, they've almost been a one-sided squad.

While the offense was a steady, at best, and conservative to a fault, at worst, unit through Reid's tenure as the Chiefs head coach, we could usually count on the defense to be one of the best in the NFL. Kansas City's stop unit ranked inside the top-seven in points allowed in each of Reid's first four seasons at the helm, and inside the top-five in takeaways in three of the four. The defense hasn't been anything close to the same this season.

As the offense soared to new heights with Smith having a career year with explosive playmakers highlighted by all-star rookie running back Kareem Hunt, the defense consistently underwhelmed. Kansas City ranked 30th in yards and 19th in points allowed heading into Monday night, both low-marks of the Reid era.

The biggest issue for Kansas City's defense through the first seven weeks was a pure and simple lack of difference-makers. A squad once stocked with top-level talent at multiple levels of the defensive side of the ball. Here in 2017, they're reliant on dominant performances from just a small handful of the high-end players they have left. On one night, at least, the Chiefs got just that from veteran pass rusher Justin Houston.

It's been a tumultuous past three years for Houston. After establishing himself as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year-caliber player, a knee injury forced him to miss extended time during the 2015 and 2016 campaigns. Houston played in just 16 games combined between the two seasons. When Houston was on the field in 2016 after finally returning from his ACL injury, it was clear he wasn't the same player. Houston posted a mere 8.2 pressure rate last season, collecting 10 pressures in five starts.

On Monday night, we were reminded that Houston is indeed all the way back and rounding into dominant form. Houston posted a 14.8 percent pressure rate against the Denver Broncos, a top-25 mark among pass rushers in Week 8.

Not only did his two sacks come in eye-popping fashion but a number of Houston's pressures completely disrupted their division rival's starting quarterback. Trevor Siemian completed just two of his seven passes under pressure Monday night for a grand total of 16 yards and his late fourth quarter touchdown. Houston exposed a massive weakness of Siemian's and made him pay for it. The wilting Broncos' quarterback sports a 37.5 completion percentage on passes under pressure, second-worst among quarterbacks this year and trailing only DeShone Kizer.

While Houston's dominant effort was exactly the type of contest he needed to remind the national stage he's back to the height of his powers, he's been offering up excellent play all season. Heading into Week 8, Houston had recorded 24 total pressures. Only eight players had more to their name. It's safe to say the 28-year old pass rusher should be placed right back near the top of the pantheon of NFL pass rushers.

The Chiefs can rest easy knowing they're set with one of the best defensive rushers in the NFL playing at a peak level, but questions still abound for the rest of their stop unit. The secondary in particular is still an area of massive concern. Playing against floundering Siemian, Kansas City didn't pay for it Monday night, but Denver did go right after their weakest point. The right corner spot has been an issue for the Chiefs over the last two seasons and the Broncos followed the trend of teams picking on that spot relentlessly.

Even though the Chiefs benched normal starter Terrance Mitchell in favor of Kenneth Acker, Demaryius Thomas still saw all nine of his targets come when lined up wide left. Perhaps the change to Acker, if Mitchell remains on the sideline, and the return of slot corner Stephen Nelson will bring some improvement, but we must consider this a fatal flaw in Kansas City's defense until we see otherwise.

The Chiefs dynamic offense has been more than good enough to carry the load through their hot 6-2 start while the other side of the ball attempts to find itself. As the defense continues to operate in flux while searching for ways to fill-in leaky gaps, Andy Reid and company will have to count on purely dominant performances from their best defensive players to keep the unit afloat. After watching Justin Houston on Monday night, the team can feel confident that at least one of their all-stars is up to the task.

Matt Harmon is a writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB and Instagram or like on Facebook.