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Film Room: Should the Colts’ re-sign Justin Houston this offseason?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL offseason is finally here for the Indianapolis Colts after going 11-5 in the regular season and losing to the number two seed Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs. While it was a disappointing end to a fun season, let’s not forget how quickly this team has been able to bounce back. They lost their franchise quarterback just before last season and a year later were back in the playoffs with an older quarterback that many deemed as “washed”. This was a good and promising season that nobody should be disappointed with.

That being said, it is time to transition to the offseason for the Colts and for us here at Stampede Blue. This is a huge offseason that could have a major impact on the future of the franchise. The first area to look at is the upcoming Colts’ free agents and the decisions that Indy will have to make on them. So every Tuesday morning here until free agency starts, I will be doing film rooms on some of the top guys and talking about whether or not the Colts should keep them.

First up is veteran pass rusher Justin Houston. Houston had a productive year on paper as he totaled 25 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss, 8 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 2 safeties, and a forced fumble. On paper, this seems like an easy re-sign for the team but let’s look at the film and see why it may not be such an obvious move.

The Good (the flashes are still excellent)

While I am going to talk about some of my concerns with Houston’s game throughout this piece, I can still say that he had quite a few high-quality sacks this season and still flashes brilliance as a pass rusher. When he was a much younger pass rusher, he was a perfect mix of speed and power and was one of the more dangerous pass rushers in the NFL. As age and injuries have worn him down over the years, he still possesses that power that he once had but the speed is mostly gone. He has done a great job of changing his game to more of a technician and you get reps like this where he just wins quickly with his hands at the point of attack.

Houston was at his best this year when he could rush inside the offensive tackle or stunt to the interior. When he was able to shorten his lane to the quarterback, he had enough speed to make a big impact. He utilized inside moves when rushing the passer to great success this year as a result. This is a beautiful inside move that catches the offensive tackle off guard as he gets the quick sack on the play.

The power though was why he was able to be so productive. Opposing offensive tackles had plenty of issues with Houston’s long-arm rush and his ability to transition speed to power on his bull rushes. Here he beats a good offensive tackle in Billy Turner by driving him back with the long arm and swatting the hands to make his way downhill to Aaron Rodgers for the sack.

This last clip is still positive as Houston is able to utilize a nice swim move for the forced fumble sack but it does bring up the main issue with his skill set. How productive would he have been without DeForest Buckner collapsing the interior of the pocket? Houston wouldn’t come near this sack normally but Buckner is able to get interior pressure that drives Deshaun Watson out of the pocket and into the arms of Houston. Houston is a powerful veteran pass rusher who can still be productive with his flashes but some of his production was enhanced by having an elite interior pass rusher on his team.

The Bad (no juice and no consistency)

The main issue to discuss though is why the Colts had so many spurts of no pass rush production this year. Houston’s raw stats are great but digging into the pressure numbers and there are some concerns. He was sixth among Colts’ defensive linemen in pass rush production, a metric that PFF uses to measure hits and hurries relative to how often a player rushes the passer. Houston also had an unreal sack conversion number as he had 8 sacks this year with just 3 quarterback hits. For comparison, Buckner had 16 quarterback hits to go with his 10 sacks according to PFF. In fact, Houston finished with fewer quarterback hits on the season than Grover Stewart and Al-Quadin Muhammad.

The problem simply comes down to his lack of juice on the edge. Having great power and hands can lead to usable production but having speed and bend off the edge can constantly disrupt an opposing offense. For instance, Kemoko Turay was less than stellar upon returning from injury. He did however have almost half as many hurries as Houston this year despite playing 309 fewer pass rush snaps on the year. The reason for that is speed as Turay at least threatens that edge with consistency when he plays and the result is moving the quarterback off his spot. Far too often, Houston’s pass rushes were ineffective with no push into the pocket at all.

Justin Houston just isn’t the player that he once was and the result is that he shouldn’t be a starter on defense. He has enough flashes as a pass rusher to be a good situational guy (think of how Ryan Kerrigan was used in Washington this year) but the down to down consistency leaves so much to be desired. Also factor in that the Colts will be facing off against mobile quarterbacks like Watson, Ryan Tannehill, and Trevor Lawrence six times a year for the foreseeable future. Indy needs to get faster on the edge so plays like this stop showing up on film.

Oh and to add one more thing, his run defense was pretty poor in a lot of games. While that isn’t a huge issue considering he is here for his pass-rushing ability, it still lends more detail to the point that he shouldn’t be a starter for a team anymore in this league.

Final Thoughts and Verdict

The Justin Houston signing in 2019 was an absolute win for this franchise as the team got two productive years from the veteran pass rusher and he was able to lend his mentoring to the younger players on the team. However, I do think it is ultimately time to move on. The Colts need to get faster on the edge and Houston simply doesn’t do that for this team.

He will have a productive role with another team next year but is just not a fit here going forward in my opinion.

Verdict: Let Him Walk (unless it is very very cheap to bring him back)