The Indianapolis Colts’ remarkable turnaround in 2018 has been well documented. The team has received considerable praise and deservedly so. However, the near-complete turnaround they accomplished on defense often feels overlooked. The offense was buoyed by the return of the Andrew Luck, the additions of Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith by way of the 2018 NFL Draft. They also added free agent tight end Eric Ebron. The defense relied largely on returning faces to engineer their own meteoric rise to top-10 status (with a sizable contribution from Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard, of course). Arguably an even more impressive feat.
Maybe most impressive regarding the Colts’ reversal of defensive fortunes was that the unit did not feature a premier pass-rusher. A weapon the top defenses in the National Football League almost always have. That will most certainly not be the case in 2019. Colts general manager Chris Ballard assured that with the free agent signing of Justin Houston a week into the 2019 free agency period.
Houston’s torrid start
Before signing with the Indianapolis Colts, Justin Houston draft by the Chiefs with the 70th(third round) overall selection of 2011 NFL Draft. The former Georgia Bulldog’s made an immediate impact with 5.5 sacks in his rookie season. He followed with three-consecutive double-digit sack campaigns culminating in a near record-breaking tally of 22 sacks over 87 pressures (per PFF, subscription required) in 2014. A performance that elevated Houston to a household name and earned him a First-Team All-Pro selection by the Associated Press.
The four-time Pro Bowler was handsomely rewarded for his stellar season with a record (the highest in NFL history for a linebacker at the time) six-year, $101 million extension. Though the 7.5 sack total was not as otherworldly, Houston would pick up the 2015 season right where he left off with 60 pressures over his first 11 games.
A tragic blow
Then, tragedy struck. Houston would suffer what was, at the time, diagnosed as a hyper-extended knee. As a result, the now All-Pro would go on to miss the remainder of the 2015 regular season before returning for a pair of playoff games. Two weeks later, Houston would have surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee. A near ten-month recovery would see him 2016 open on the Physically Unable to Perform(PUP) list. He would return in week 13 missing all but 5 regular season games.
Houston would go on to start 15 games in what represented a solid comeback season in 2017. He accounted for 59 pressures and 11 QB hits to go along with 10.5 sacks. An impressive turn only 18 months removed from ACL surgery. In 2018 he was limited to 12 regular season games by a strained hamstring still managing a productive 53 pressures and 11 sacks. He would return for two playoff games.
The Chiefs would subsequently release the eight-year veteran preceding what would amount to a complete rebuild of the team’s defense. A disappointing 2018 performance that short-circuited their record-breaking offense from reaching the Super Bowl was the catalyst. The team would finish the season with the NFL’s top-rated offense, but 26th on defense. Houston’s advancing age, enormous salary, and the presence of emerging potential superstars Dee Ford and Chis Jones brought an end to Houston’s career as a Chief.
What can Houston bring to the Colts?
While not the All-Pro caliber player of his prime, Houston is still an extremely good pass-rusher. He should also benefit from a switch to the Indianapolis Colts’ 4-3 defensive front. A welcomed change that will limit his snaps in coverage. A subject he recently spoke about:
“I just wanted to be in a 4-3 (defense),” Houston said. “I think I didn’t get enough credit for me being in a 3-4, and dropping a lot of the time, so my sack numbers weren’t as high as I would like for them to be. So just being in a 4-3 and don’t have to think about dropping no more is something I want to do for the rest of my career. I just want to go forward and rush the passer.”
Houston spent 977 snaps in coverage over his eight-year Chiefs career. A trend I expect to end in Indianapolis. Head coach Frank Reich and staff have consistently proven they can get the most from their personnel. I anticipate nothing less with regard to Houston’s usage and transition to a 4-3. Look for few if any drops into coverage and likely a few more breathers in place of the absent coverage snaps. Reich’s staff will want to keep their prized free agent fresh and in good health.
The 2019 Colts defense
The Indianapolis Colts bring plenty of depth behind presumed starters Houston and Jabaal Sheard to training camp in 2019. The team returns veteran Al-Quadin Muhammed as well as second-year hopefuls Kemeko Turay and Tyquan Lewis. Rookies Ben Banogu, Gerri Green, and Jegs Jegede will also figure into the mix. Overall, a deeper, more dynamic group than was brought to camp a year ago, and with one very notable addition: Justin Houston.
Houston gives the Colts the premiere pass-rusher their otherwise solid unit was previously lacking. He is no longer the elite player he once was. But he is the caliber pass rusher that needs to be accounted for at all times. The kind teams single block at their own peril. His presence should provide not only great pass-rush production but more 1-on-1 opportunities for those around him. For the second straight season, the Colts defense may have added a game-changing player that elevates them as a unit. If Justin Houston can bring the same level of play to Indianapolis, they may be counting themselves among the elite defenses in 2019.
Ken Grant is a writer for PFN covering the AFC South. You can follow him @KenGrantPFN on Twitter.