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Figuring Justin Houston's place in Chiefs history isn't easy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- We know that Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston leads the NFL in sacks with 12 and is on pace to break the NFL's season record of 22.5 set in 2001 by Michael Strahan of the New York Giants.

That's big stuff for the 25-year-old Houston. Fifty-one games into his career, Houston has already established himself as one of the best pass-rushers in franchise history.

That list is long. Chiefs history is full with premium pass-rushers, including Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas and two others who have won a season sack title, Neil Smith and Jared Allen. The Chiefs had top pass-rushers in Jerry Mays and Aaron Brown when they had dominant defenses in the late 1960s, before sacks were kept as an official stat.

So figuring where Houston stands among modern pass-rushers might not be difficult, but placing him in Chiefs history is.

"All different styles of rushers and all different kinds of defenses," said former Chiefs defensive lineman Bill Maas, who was a teammate of Thomas, Smith and another great former Chiefs pass-rusher, Art Still.

Houston has impressive numbers. His 38.5 sacks are ninth on the Chiefs' all-time list, but his career has been relatively brief. It's conceivable he could finish this season in sixth place.

If he can get just two more sacks over the season's final eight games, he would be behind only Thomas in being the fastest to 40 in a Chiefs career.

Thomas finished his career with 126.5 sacks. Smith is second with 86.5, Tamba Hali third with 77.5 and Still fourth at 73. Houston should eventually catch the last three and might wind up challenging Thomas.

"The way the league is now, I would assume that," said Maas, himself still eighth in Chiefs history with 40 sacks. "If he stays healthy he'll put up some big numbers. He might break the [NFL] sack record this year. He's halfway there, right?

"He's got the ability and he's strong enough that he can control the line of scrimmage, he can rush inside on you, he can rush outside on you. That combination is unique. None of the other guys you're talking about had that ability. You don't find many players who can do that."

Numbers don't tell the entire story, though. Houston plays in a passing era, so he's going to get a lot of chances to rush the quarterback.

"When I think back on a guy like Art Still, he played on losing teams, so [the opponent] never had to throw the ball," Maas said. "He played in a running era. So he didn't have the chance to rush the quarterback a lot. But when it was time to rush the passer, he was something else."

Houston has been remarkably consistent with his rush this season; he hasn't padded his stats with a monster game or two. His season high is three sacks, and he's had at least one sack in all but one game.

Where Houston lacks, particularly in comparison to some top rushers in Chiefs history, are the strips that go with the sacks. Houston has just one forced fumble this season and four in 3½ seasons with the Chiefs.

Over the same time period, as a comparison, Hali has 12.

"Derrick Thomas and Jared Allen, they were pretty good at that, too," said Herm Edwards, an assistant for the Chiefs when Thomas and Smith played and later a head coach for Allen and Hali. "Those guys didn't just sack the quarterback. They knocked the ball out. They were really good at that and that's a special trait. That's like a double sack.

"In the big moments, when you really needed it, they got it. I can remember standing in that stadium and saying to Derrick, 'OK, go get the ball.' He found a way. Jared Allen, same thing. He found a way.

"Justin Houston, he can build on that part of his game. He's still young."

That seems to be the key issue here. Houston's career is off to a great start, and eventually he could become the greatest pass-rusher in Chiefs history.

For now, he's just part of the discussion.

"Justin Houston is climbing," Maas said. "He's doing some great things right now, but the numbers don't really matter to me. I'm just going on pure ability to rush the passer here, and if you're asking me to rank them, I'd say Derrick Thomas is one, Art Still two, Neil Smith three, Jared Allen four and then Justin Houston."