Justin Houston leads ‘legit’ Colts defense with play and presence

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 17: Justin Houston #99 of the Indianapolis Colts during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It’s the Justin Houston Effect.

It’s been there from opening day and increased week after week, sack after sack.

Aside from the raw numbers – 8 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, nine tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries, all team highs – there’s the undeniable leadership. Watch the Indianapolis Colts defense converge after pre-game warm-ups and you’ll notice a mass of amped-up humanity with Justin Houston serving as the epicenter.

“When he talks,’’ Frank Reich said Tuesday, “people listen.’’

Added defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus: “He’s being a complete, all-around defensive end, not only his special talents to rush the passer but also every facet of his game.’’

Remember the defining moment of the Colts’ 19-13 upset of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium? The Chiefs trailed 16-10 and faced a fourth-and-1 from their own 34 with 5 minutes to play. Patrick Mahomes turned and handed off to Damien Williams. Houston sliced in from his right end spot, unblocked, and dragged down Williams for a 1-yard loss.

Houston’s reputation, though, is as one of the NFL’s premier edge rushers. He generated 78.5 in eight seasons with the Chiefs and was targeted by the Colts when Kansas City allowed him to hit the open market in the offseason.

It’s easy to imagine Reich’s reaction when Chris Ballard informed him bringing Houston to Indy was one of his offseason priorities.

“Obviously, we were looking for an impact player as a defensive end,’’ Reich said.

He already had experienced Houston’s game-changing impact. In 2014, Houston piled up 22 sacks, a Chiefs record and tied for the second-most in NFL history (Michael Strahan, 22.5 in 2001). The final 4 came in Kansas City’s final game, a 19-7 win over the San Diego Chargers.

Reich looked on, helplessly, as San Diego’s offensive coordinator.

“We were literally double and triple-teaming him and he dominated,’’ he said.

So when Ballard mentioned pursuing Houston as part of his offseason plans, Reich nodded his approval. But he still had a question.

“I didn’t understand how great of a leader he was,’’ he said. “I just knew he was a great player.

“Chris was able to give me the insight into how he was as a man.’’

Often, it takes time for an acquired free agent to assume the role of leader. The Colts had their share on defense: Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Jabaal Sheard.

Houston’s assimilation was immediate.

“You can feel his confidence,’’ Reich said. “You can always feel it.’’

Listen to quarterback Jacoby Brissett.

“I’m glad he’s on our side and I don’t have to play against him,’’ he said with a smile, adding “the leadership he provides us is unmatched. The confidence that he gives us . . . is special.’’

While the defense – everybody – feeds off Houston’s leadership, it’s thriving in part because of his on-field contributions.

He’s had at least one sack in six straight games, which is tied for the longest in-season streak of his career. He had two six-game streaks during his epic 2014 season. His longest actual streak is eight games: the final six games of ’14, the first two of ’15.

From a Colts’ perspective, Houston’s six-game streak is tied for the third-longest in team history. Dwight Freeney set the standard with nine consecutive games spanning 2008-09. Robert Mathis posted a pair of eight-game streaks.

“He’s definitely in a groove,’’ Reich said.

As is the defense as a whole.

“Our defense right now is legit,’’ Reich said. “I mean, we’re in my mind one of the best defenses in the league.’’

All of that will be tested Thursday in Houston. The Texans feature an offense that ranks seventh in yards (380.2), fifth in rushing (140.7), 14th in passing (239.5) and 10th in scoring (24.5). It presents complicated issues with Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson.

The Colts’ defense, meanwhile, ranks ranks 11th in yards allowed (325.6) and is 15th in scoring (20.6). But those raw numbers don’t tell the story.

Over the last four games, the defense is yielding 269.8 yards per game and 5.0 yards per play. It’s allowed just five total touchdowns, and opponents have converted just 19-of-55 (34.5%) third downs.

“You can definitely feel it and see it on film,’’ said safety Malik Hooker.

The defense hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 28 consecutive regular-season games, the NFL’s second-longest active streak.

It’s been a gradual climb, just as it was in 2018. Over the final 11 games of last season, the Colts allowed an average of 16.4 points, the fewest in the NFL.

The emergence of the defense has happened even though coordinator Matt Eberflus has had to adjust to missing several front-line players at various times: Leonard (three games with a concussion), Sheard (three with a knee), Pierre Desir (four and counting with a hamstring; although he might return Thursday at Houston), Hooker (three with a knee), Clayton Geathers (one with a concussion), Kenny Moore II (one with a knee), Kemoko Turay (on IR with a fractured/dislocated ankle).

Eberflus also has incorporated a slew of rookies into scheme: safety Khari Willis, cornerbacks Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell III and Shak Taylor, linebackers E.J. Speed and Bobby Okereke, end Ben Banogu.

He’s found ways to maximize Houston’s all-around skills. All of that takes time.

“One thing you learn as a coach is patience,’’ Eberflus said. “You want everything done right away at times, and I think everybody is like that. If you can have some patience and an aggressive mentality, saying, ‘We need it done now,’ to push the players, eventually they’ll start to rise together.’’

The Colts were expected to feature a top-tier defense in large part because they returned the bulk of the 2018 group, which was bolstered by the addition of Houston and another solid rookie class.

“But you’ve got to do it again,’’ linebacker Anthony Walker said. “You can’t just put it on paper and say, ‘Oh, it looks good on paper.’ We had a couple of breakdowns early in the season where guys weren’t on the same page. Not that you expect that early, but you kinda do. It just happens.

“We’ve been clicking lately.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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