KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There was a time this season when 20 sacks seemed possible for Justin Houston.
Through the Chiefs' first 10 games, Houston had 11 sacks, among the league leaders at the time. He was a primary catalyst on one of the league's best and baddest defenses, a unit that -- despite being humbled by Denver quarterback Peyton Manning in Week 11 -- was still respected as one of the league's very best.
But in Week 12 against San Diego, Houston dislocated his elbow, an injury that would keep him out for the remainder of the regular season. Since then, Houston has been forced to watch a once-vaunted Chiefs pass rush turn hot and cold as teams keyed on fellow pass-rush star Tamba Hali.
"It's very tough knowing that if you were out there, you can make a difference," said Houston, a 24-year-old outside linebacker.
In the four starts since Houston's injury, Hali has only two sacks, both against Washington. In Houston's absence, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has dialed up more blitzes, using do-it-all players like linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry to try to pick up the slack.
But on Saturday, when the Chiefs head to Indianapolis for their first-round playoff game against the Colts, all signs point to Houston finally being ready to play, a return to normalcy that can do a team that has gone 2-5 in its last seven games plenty of good.
"I don't know how much it changes (what we do offensively), but certainly we know that both of those guys have 11 sacks apiece," Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said. "With Tamba (Hali) on one side and Justin (Houston) on the other, it's a great duo ... our tackles have played well, for the most part, all season so it will be a huge challenge for both of those guys to get those guys blocked."
While Colts tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus have been fairly reliable pass blockers this season, Pagano knows that the problem with facing the Chiefs at full strength is this: even when you focus on Hali and Houston, the other guys can get you, too.
Despite their late-season peaks and valleys, the Chiefs are still tied for sixth in the NFL in sacks with 47 and fifth in opponent's third-down conversion percentage (34.1).
"They'll bring guys from every level and there are guys that have sack totals from every level of that defense," Pagano said. "They're blitzing those guys. Derrick (Johnson) is coming inside, (Eric) Berry is coming ... it makes your focus trying to stop the two main guys, 91 and 50, but you better pay attention to the rest of the crew because they have a bunch of able bodies over there that can get after the quarterback."
One player looking forward to the return of Houston is nose tackle Dontari Poe, who noted that things change for him a great deal when both Houston and Hali are in the game.
"Those guys are great pass rushers so (teams) can't just come in and ... double one person," Poe said. "Somebody has to have a one on one . . . when one of those guys are down, it's not the same."
Frank Zombo, Houston's replacement, has done an adequate job replacing Houston, especially against the run. His grade of 6.3 against the run (according to Pro Football Focus) is even higher than inside linebacker Akeem Jordan's, who has a run grade of 6.0 and considered a solid player against the run.
But Zombo has largely struggled to generate a pass rush; he's recorded two sacks in his last five starts, but his pass-rush grade of negative-7.2 is the worst on the team. In comparison, Houston -- despite missing the last 5 1/2 games -- is solid against the run and pass and remains the defense's highest-graded player at 31.8, with Poe second at 23.5.
No wonder Houston's return is, perhaps, the biggest reason to believe the Chiefs can still return to playing the type of defense they had the first nine weeks. Safety Kendrick Lewis said the unit met Monday, shortly after the Chiefs' 27-24 loss to San Diego, and after they watched film of the Chargers game and their previous game against the Colts, they also looked at film of their first couple of games.
"(Back) when we were flying around," Lewis said, "how balls were coming our way, how we were making plays. We all looked at each other and said 'This what we gotta get back to, starting this week.' "
There's more that goes into that than Houston's return, of course. Better communication is needed in the secondary, for one, and the de facto bye week Chiefs coach Andy Reid orchestrated against the Chargers should freshen some veteran legs, too.
But a healthy Houston, who says he could have played Sunday against San Diego, if needed, is a heck of a start, especially when reunited with the 31-year-old Hali, who has been battling a knee sprain that kept him out of practice Wednesday but would seem to be a good bet to play in the Chiefs' first playoff game in four years.
"I think we still see a fair amount of maxed-up protections because of some of the rushes we do," Sutton said. "But obviously, the advantages (with) these guys are that they can create pressure on their own ... guys (like that) are hard to deal with because you've got to block 'em every single play and you can't relax. At some point, schematically, you're probably going to be blocking one of those guys by yourself.
"I'm sure (Indianapolis) look at us a lot different with those two guys on the edges."
Houston, for his part, could look a little different in his return to the field. In practice, he's been wearing a large black arm brace, which he says is similar to the one Texans star J.J. Watt wears, to protect his elbow.
"The first two days, it took some time to get used to, but after that, it's nothing," Houston said. "I've got all my movement back, it just helps support it."
Houston, who said he's been lifting weights fully for at least a week and doing a lot of extra running to get in game condition, just hopes he'll be able to jump right in and make up for lost time. The injury might have ruined his goal of a 20-sack regular season, but he knows there's plenty left to accomplish.
"I know everybody's got their own personal goals," Houston said, "but the team is more important, and we still have that dream."
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