KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Outside linebacker Justin Houston has played for some strong pass-rushing teams since joining the Kansas City Chiefs. He usually contributes to the effort in a big way, never more so than in 2014, when he had 22 sacks.
Houston said recently that he wasn’t sure how this year’s team compared.
“That’s a tough one," Houston said. “I’ve been on a lot of great units."
Houston was certain of one thing, though.
“The best is yet to come," he said.
Houston has good reason to feel that way. The pass rush has helped carry the Chiefs to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs tied for the NFL regular-season lead with 52 sacks. Lineman Chris Jones led the way with 15.5, followed by linebacker Dee Ford with 13. Houston had nine despite missing four games with an injury.
For much of the season, the pass rush was about all the Chiefs could consistently rely on from their defense. Their rushing defense was woeful and their pass coverage spotty.
The most obvious example of the pass rush winning a game for them came in December against the Baltimore Ravens. With the game tied 24-24 late in the fourth quarter, Houston sacked Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, forced him to fumble and then recovered with the Chiefs in field goal range.
The Chiefs missed the kick, sending the game to overtime. But after taking a 27-24 lead, the Chiefs in effect closed it out with another Houston sack that pushed the Ravens into late-down and long-distance situations.
The rest of the defense has come around. The Chiefs allowed just one late touchdown and a defensive TD in their 31-13 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, after giving up just a field goal in the final regular-season game against the Oakland Raiders.
The pass rush is still the basis of everything the Chiefs accomplish on defense. They sacked Andrew Luck three times on Saturday. Impressive, considering the Colts allowed a league-low 18 sacks this season.
“We don’t care who we are going against," Jones said. “We can go up against brick walls and we will find a way to beat them."
It’s not just about sacks. The Chiefs, for instance, deflected four passes against the Colts, three by Jones and one by Houston.
“[When] you start affecting [the quarterback's] spot, [when] he can’t get to his second or third read ... [when] he can’t step up ... there are a lot of things that affect the quarterback," outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said.
“The ball comes out quick these days, especially against us. It’s almost record time every time we play. They’re adding chips, keeping guys in. It affects an [opposing] offense. They’ve got to prepare every week for what we have."
Ford said, “Obviously, you want a sack but you’re not going to get a sack every play. You can’t rush with the mentality that ‘I want a sack every play’ because you could be hurting the defense. Getting pressure on the quarterback means disrupting the timing of his throws [when] he can’t step through on certain throws. That takes certain types of rushes and it takes you knowing how to do that every play.
“If the ball is going to come out quick, all we can do is disrupt that throw. That can lead to us getting off the field.’’
Getting off the field without allowing points is the goal on every defensive drive, the sooner the better because field position can be affected.
That’s where a strong rush comes in. The Chiefs generated a strong pass rush without blitzing a lot. They blitzed on about 12 percent of their plays in the regular season, which was the 10th-lowest rate in the league.
That approach could be helpful Sunday. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has historically had trouble facing defenses that can rush the passer successfully without blitzing.
The Chiefs blitzed even less against the Colts, on just five of the 53 snaps they defended.
“Everybody will tell you if you can do it with four people, that’s an even bigger advantage," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Obviously it gives you more people to cover with and you can do more things schematically."
The Chiefs had a strip sack against the Colts when Ford knocked the ball away from Luck. The Chiefs recovered. In their 43-40 regular-season loss to the Patriots, the Chiefs sacked Brady twice, but Brady threw for more than 300 yards. On Sunday, in what could be another high-scoring game, disrupting Brady and getting the ball back to Patrick Mahomes and the offense will be paramount.
“A pass rush can get you off the field," said Sutton, whose defense gave up 500 total yards to the Patriots in the Week 6 matchup. "Even when you’re not playing dominant defense and giving up a lot of yards, the key part is always getting the ball back or getting off the field. One or the other. The other thing we’ve done a great job of is stripping the ball. It’s not just sacks but the ability to take the ball away. That’s a challenging thing for an offense to deal with. Not only do you have to deal with pressure but also the possibility of losing the ball."