Justin Houston missed five games last season and wasn’t the same when he returned for the playoffs. Houston ended up having knee surgery in February, missed the first nine games this season and looked rusty when he returned to face the Buccaneers two weeks ago.
Then everything changed for Kansas City’s top pass rusher during a victory at Denver on Sunday night.
Houston dominated the Broncos so thoroughly that they benched right tackle Ty Sambrailo. He had three sacks, nine pressures, four tackles for loss or no gain and drew a holding call. Houston also forced a fumble that resulted in a safety and led to a Chiefs return touchdown on the ensuing free kick.
It seems the former University of Georgia standout is healthy again, just in time to chase Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
“Perfect timing, right?” Ryan said.
Chiefs safety Eric Berry, the former Creekside High School star and Houston’s close friend, said his teammate is just getting started.
“He’s just going to keep playing ball,” Berry said. “I know him as a person and I know how determined he is and how hard he worked getting back on the field. I’m excited to see what he can do.”
Houston’s performance against the Broncos wasn’t out of the ordinary considering his pedigree. The Statesboro native has been voted to four consecutive Pro Bowl selections and got an All-Pro nod in 2014, when he led the league with 22 sacks.
But Houston’s performance was remarkable because he was questionable to even play this season after the February ACL surgery. If Houston doesn’t yet have his normal explosiveness it was hard to tell against the Broncos because he was plenty quick enough and craftily set up his speed rushes with power moves.
“As a pass rusher when you have the speed to get off the ball and force a tackle out of his technique so early, it’s like beating someone to the punch,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “When you have a great ‘get-off’ you can put the pressure mentally and physically on an offensive line. We know we have our hands full. He’s a terrific player.”
Houston isn’t the only capable pass rusher the Falcons must contend with on Sunday.
Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford, who has 10 sacks this season, missed the Broncos game because of a hamstring injury but returned to practice on Wednesday. He’s expected to line up on the right side of the defense opposite Houston.
The Chiefs rank just 24th in the adjusted sack rate metric calculated by Pro Football Outsiders. But the Falcons figure to see a much more formidable pass rush with Houston rounding into form and Ford back in the lineup alongside him.
“It’s impressive the depth they have, especially on the edge,” Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews said. “It’s going to be a challenge but we feel ready for it and we feel like we can compete with them and block them and give Matt a chance to make plays.”
Matthews and his line mates have good reason to feel confident after they had probably their best game of the season in pass protection on Sunday against Arizona. The Cardinals have one of the best pass-rushing units in the league but the Falcons were held to three sacks and seven total pressures against Ryan on 39 drop backs.
For the most part, the Falcons effectively protected Ryan against other opponents with strong pass rushers including the Eagles, Packers, Broncos and Panthers.
“We’ve played a lot of really fronts this year so I think we are tested,” Ryan said.
Also, Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder is a better player than Broncos Sambrailo and Donald Stephenson, who replaced Samabrailo against the Chiefs before Sambrailo eventually went back in the game.
Schraeder said the key to facing Houston’s speed rush is to get far enough back in his pass set to cut off Houston so he doesn’t have a “short corner” to Ryan. Schrader said it helps him to face teammate Vic Beasley, who is developing into a strong speed rusher in his second season.
“We’ve just got to get after those guys, man,” Schraeder said of the Chiefs. “They are going to come with a lot of speed, they are good pass rushers. It’s going to be a challenge but we are up for it.”