KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Quarterbacks would be faring a whole lot better against Justin Houston this season if they avoided him as deftly as the Chiefs’ star linebacker dodges reporters.
It doesn’t matter that Houston is the NFL’s sack leader heading into the final week of the regular season.
Nor does it matter that he’s just two sacks shy of 20, which would match Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas for the single-season franchise record.
He’d rather let others vouch for him than speak in front of a camera.
“It starts physically, a guy that’s extremely physically talented,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said, “but the thing about Justin is how smart he is. He knows situations, sees tendencies, splits, things like that. He has a good understanding of the game.”
Smith is speaking from experience having faced Houston in training camp, when coach Andy Reid unleashes the first-team defense against the No. 1 offense.
But even then, Smith usually has on the yellow jersey that is supposed to keep defenders from laying a lick on them.
Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have no such luxury.
“He’s just relentless,” Smith added. “Plays such good football in all situations. That’s the thing I see. Those guys only get noticed for sacks and deservedly some of that, but certainly how he plays on first and second down, plays the run — an all-down player.”
When he was coming out of Georgia, Houston had a reputation for being far better at getting to the quarterback than dropping into coverage or stopping the run.
These days, he’s just as adept at bringing down a ball carrier or batting down a pass as he is pummeling a quarterback.
There’s a benefit to that, too: Houston’s now on the field in virtually any down or distance, giving him even more opportunities to harass the opponent.
He’s had at least one sack in five straight games.
“He’s a great leader, a vocal leader, but he shows in actions, too, going out and laying it on the line,” Chiefs defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said.
“Consistency in his level of play, his preparation is good — he does a lot of film study, and he communicates with the group on what he sees and what he think is coming. He has a good knack of picking that up.”
Houston was on quite a pace last year before he dislocated his elbow in November, keeping him out until the playoffs. He’s been healthy this year and piling up the sacks.
When he brought down Roethlisberger in last Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh, it gave him 18 on the season.
That’s a half sack more than the Texans’ J.J. Watt and a full sack more than Ravens star Elvis Dumervil, the two defenders closest to him in the league race.
Houston already has the second-most sacks in any Chiefs season, surging past the 15 1/2 that Jared Allen had in 2007. Now, only Thomas and his 20 sacks in 1990 still stand.
“We’re all pulling for him that he can finish up,” said Reid, whose Chiefs need to beat San Diego on Sunday and get a whole lot of help to reach the playoffs.
“That’s not the most important thing — he wants to win the game — but at the same time, he sure has done a nice job.”
He’s been doing it for a while, too. Houston is only wrapping up his fourth season, but has already climbed into a tie with Eric Hicks for sixth in team history at 44 1/2 sacks.
Mike Bell is not far off in fifth place with 51 sacks.
Whether Houston gets a shot at that mark becomes a touchy subject.
Houston’s representatives spoke to the Chiefs about a long-term deal last offseason, but they never made much headway.
Houston stayed away from the practice facility during voluntary workouts, though he took part in all of training camp.
Now, if the Chiefs are unable to work out a deal after the season, they face a quandary: Let him go elsewhere in free agency or slap him with the franchise tag, which is projected to be about $13 million and tends to leave players with a less-than-happy attitude.
Whatever plays out, Houston still has at least one more game left in a Chiefs uniform, and a fairly substantial franchise record within his grasp.