INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It took a while to wade through the coachspeak.
Coordinator Matt Eberflus was discussing his expectations for Justin Houston, the pass-rush threat added to his defense during the offseason.
He explained the importance of Houston attacking things “on a play-to-play basis,’’ and “micro it down,’’ and “put your mind where your feet are and just do that, take one step at a time,’’ and “have a great practice, have a great walk-through,’’ and “stack a day together and then put another day together,’’ and “then work to the game,’’ and “then play that game one play at a time.’’
It was taking a page – probably the introductory page – from Frank Reich’s “How To’’ book. It was sticking to the process and not becoming distracted by the end result.
Eberflus’ point-by-point approach might be especially pertinent when it comes to the defensive line, in general, and Houston, in particular.
Persistence and relentlessness are required. You never know which play carries game-turning consequences.
“When you play defensive line, it’s like you’re going to throw your fastball and it’s going to be a strikeout,’’ Eberflus said. “Throw it, throw it, throw it and all of a sudden, boom, there it is.
“If it happens twice in one game, that’s a pretty good game.’’
Don’t go away, there’s more when it comes the impact of a Justin Houston-level threat. His presence, Eberflus noted, creates “chips, double teams and different things that you have to do to help a particular player and that frees up someone else.
“We’re excited about having him out there.’’
Houston’s excitement was somewhat muted as he looked ahead to Sunday’s opener against the Chargers in Los Angeles.
“It’s not as eager as it’s been in the past,’’ he said. “This is year 9, so I kind of know what to expect. I’m just taking my time.
“That day is coming.’’
Houston’s been a Colt for less than six months, but immediately bought what Eberflus was selling. He’s taken that play-by-play, day-by-day approach. He’s making certain to be on point with his individual responsibilities within the scheme, understanding the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
“Anything they ask me to do, I’m trying to do it,’’ Houston said Thursday. “I’m here to help.
“In the run game, in the pass game, it doesn’t matter as long as I’m helping these guys.’’
The defense took a quantum leap in Eberflus’ first season. It ranked 11th in fewest yards allowed per game and 10th in scoring in 2018. The prior season, it ranked 30th in both categories. It also showed growth in getting after the quarterback: 19th in ’18 after being 31st in ’17.
Yet no one was satisfied, which led general manager Chris Ballard to invest so heavily in Houston – a two-year, $23 million contract. In eight seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, he piled up 78.5 sacks, 9th-most among active players. He’s had at least 9 sacks in five of eight seasons, topped by a league-leading 22 in 2014, which was one sack shy of breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season record.
Finally comes the time for a return on the investment.
Houston was somewhat evasive when asked about generating sacks and pressures and the like. He repeatedly insisted he’s all about team, not individual.
But isn’t he known for sacks?
“That’s what they say I’m known for,’’ Houston said with a smile. “If I was a stat guy, that year I had 22 sacks, by the end of the season I probably would have been rushing more than dropping in coverage. I was shooting for that sack record.
“But whatever the team tells me to do, I’ll do.’’
And the sacks eventually will come?
“That’s my job,’’ Houston said. “My job is to put pressure on the quarterback, so I’m definitely going to be trying to do that when it’s time.’’
Eberflus utilizes a rotational system with his defensive line. He throws waves of players and combinations at offenses, intent of keeping his personnel fresh and wearing down the opposition.
It remains to be seen the level of workload for Houston, but it’s safe to assume he’ll be on the field in virtually every passing situation. As Eberflus mentioned, his presence will command special attention – chips, double teams – and should create opportunities for Denico Autry, who led the Colts with a career-high 9 sacks last season, and Kemoko Turay, who added 4 sacks and a team-high 13 QB hits (tied with Jabaal Sheard) as a rookie.
Early in the week, Darius Leonard was sitting quietly at his cubicle. He was asked about what Houston has brought to the defense, and the possible season-long impact.
Leonard looked to his left, where Houston was sitting. He shook his head in amazement.
“He’s a monster,’’ Leonard said. “I see that man come in day-in, day-out and work. He’s so smart. He knows how to play every block. He knows what’s coming.
“Nothing but a great ballplayer and a better leader.’’
The defense faced an average of 62 plays per game in 2018. On any given Sunday, so many plays are snapped and forgotten.
But there always are a handful that carry game-turning impact.
Those are the plays a Justin Houston – like Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney before him – are capable of producing.
“That’s not even a question,’’ Leonard said. “That man is different and he shows it. He can definitely be a game-changer. He’s shown that throughout his whole career.
“You know he’s going to be a game-changer. You know he’s going to have two or three splash plays.’’
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