The Indianapolis Colts have made their first big splash in free agency, signing defensive end Justin Houston to a 2 year 24 million dollar deal. Houston, known as one of the best pass rushers in football since he entered the NFL, was released by the Kansas City Chiefs after a season in which he tallied 12 sacks in 14 games played (including playoffs).
In today’s film room, we will take a look at what strengths he brings to the table along with some areas that bring some cause for concern. We will also discuss how he fits in the Colts’ 4-3 scheme after playing in a predominantly 3-4 scheme the last few seasons.
6’3” 258 pounds
40 Time: 4.62 / Bench Reps: 30 / Vertical Jump: 36.5 inches / Broad Jump: 125 inches / 3-cone: 6.95 seconds
Career Stats (NFL):
318 total tackles, 78.5 sacks, 32 pass deflections, and 14 forced fumbles in his 8 year career
The main focus for GM Chris Ballard this offseason was to add to the pass rush. He went out and added one of the best pass rushers of the past decade. Houston is just five years removed from nearly breaking the NFL record for sacks in a season with 22 in 2014. He may have regressed a bit due to injuries and age but he still knows how to get after the QB.
According to Pro Football Focus, Houston tallied 48 pressures along with 32 hurries and 6 QB hits on just 419 pass rushes last year. His pass rush productivity percentage of 8.6% was good for 5th in the NFL among pass rushers with at least 300 pass rushes last year. He still has a little bit of juice to get after the QB.
First clip is vintage Justin Houston. He is working against rookie OT Mike McGlinchey and had found success for the most part in this matchup. Houston gets a good jump out of his stance, with his hand in the dirt much like what he’d be doing here in Indy, and is able to swat the tackle’s hands away. He then dips underneath and straightens up his path to the QB. He finishes the play by knocking the ball out for the strip sack.
Throughout his career, Houston has always had insane strength. Now that he seems to have lost a step in terms of burst, he has made up for that by using more bull rushes with strong hand usage. Here he simply tosses aside one of the best tackles in football in Andrew Whitworth. Houston gets his hands inside the stout tackle and throws him back into the quarterback’s lap. He may not finish the sack here but the strength to disrupt this play and toss an elite left tackle is insane for a 258 pound defensive end.
This last clip is again against Whitworth— with his hand in the dirt again, maybe transitioning to a 4-3 isn’t too hard— and Houston wins with excellent hand usage and bend. He gets a good initial push and then dips under the arms of the tackle after the initial stalemate. He straightens his arc and hits the quarterback’s arm as he is releasing the ball, forcing yet another fumble. He may not be as athletic or explosive as he once was, but Houston can still get after the QB.
There seems to be this preconceived notion that Houston is a poor run defender because he is an undersized, 3-4 linebacker. I’m here to say that notion is completely wrong. He is not an elite run defender but for a player his size, Houston does an excellent job of setting a hard edge and making run stops.
His strength and hand usage are key factors here as he is very difficult to block one on one for blockers as he stacks and sheds them effortlessly. Part of me would like to even see him work in as a SAM backer in some formations because of his ability to set a hard edge.
This first rep has Houston lined up on the outside setting the edge against tight end George Kittle. For anyone unfamiliar with Kittle, he is one of the best blocking tight ends in football and is basically like a 6th offensive lineman on the field. Houston however makes quick work of him by quickly stacking and shedding his block on the outside. He fights back inside for the tackle immediately after, for a short gain.
His athletic ability on the end is also a major asset in run defense. Here he is tasked with setting the edge against Todd Gurley on the running back sweep. He diagnoses the play immediately and strafes down the sideline. Gurley is forced to step out of bounds after a short gain because Houston fights down the line and keeps a strong edge. Excellent, athletic play to contain Gurley.
He can even set the edge against pulling guards. I understand that this play is mostly made by the interior defensive lineman getting penetration but watch Houston set a hard edge and stack and shed the pulling guard. That is the sign of a good run defender there. A player who can absorb contact, keep his head up, and shed blockers is an asset in run defense. He is not simply a one trick pony pass rusher.
Pursuing the QB
You don’t average almost 10 sacks a season over the course of an eight year career with just skill. You have to have some drive and tenacity to achieve that feat. Houston’s effort overall is not great— which we will get to in a second— but when he is rushing the passer, he gets after it. He rarely gives up on pass rushes and creates even more pressures as a result.
This first clip has him matched up with Kittle yet again, this time while rushing the passer. Kittle gets the best of him initially as he pancakes Houston by putting him on his back. Houston though is able to get back up, locate the quarterback, and force the fumble. The awareness to still produce on plays when he loses is another trait that makes him such an elite pass rusher in his career.
Again, he is able to track down the quarterback. Here he beats the right tackle around the edge with great hand usage and bend. As he reaches the pocket though, Philip Rivers begins rolling out away from him. Houston doesn’t stop in his pursuit however and chases Rivers down for the tackle. This relentless pursuit while rushing the passer is vital for all pass rushers in today’s NFL.
There are a few drawbacks that stood out on Houston’s film. One thing that I’ve mentioned multiple times in this piece is that he doesn’t posses that elite get-off and burst that he once had. Another issue is just his injury history and age. He may only be 30 years old but he hasn’t played a whole 16 game season since 2016. The main issue though that we are going to highlight here is his effort in run defense/conditioning. He is a good run defender but when the play goes away from his side, he tends to take some plays off.
On a long drive against the 49ers, Houston got winded and as a result took a few plays off. Here is one of those plays where he starts the play standing straight up with his hands on his hip and catching his breath. Once the play starts, he stands straight up and doesn’t crash down the line in pursuit. It isn’t a huge deal but in a “swarm mentality” type defense like the Colts, these plays are very uncommon.
Another play where Houston’s conditioning shows up. He again starts the play with his hands on his hips and out of position. Once the play starts, he starts too high and gets driven out of frame by a tight end. For a player as strong and fast as Houston, he definitely should not be driven this far off the ball by a tight end. These plays happen far too often for me to be comfortable starting Houston as the base defensive end. These types of plays just can’t happen in the Colts’ swarm defense. It may seem like nitpicking but I would use a heavy rotation with Houston to limit these types of plays.
This is a homerun signing for GM Chris Ballard during the second wave of free agency. To land a pass rusher of Justin Houston’s skillset and pedigree this late into the offseason is simply excellent. He will immediately step in at a position of need and provide a huge boost to the Colts’ pass rush.
I do have my reservations with this signing however. His injury history is worrisome and the fact that he hasn’t completed a full season since 2016 is cause for some concern. The fact that he looked a bit out of shape, with his heavy workload in 2018, also is a bit of a red flag. All those worries aside though, I think the Colts can really maximize his skill-set if used correctly.
If the Colts have a set plan to cut his snaps down and use him in a rotation, Houston should flourish. The real winners of this signing are the young defensive ends in Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis. They get to operate on fresher legs and get to learn from two all time great pass rushers in Robert Mathis and Justin Houston.
At the end of the day, this is a no risk signing for the Colts. Getting a borderline Hall of Fame talent, for relatively cheap, is never a bad option. Houston still has some juice left and he can mentor the young players already on the roster. Overall just an excellent signing that could really pay off come next season.