Return of Justin Houston changes Chiefs defensive look

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Linebacker Justin Houston, asked how he expects to play after the Kansas City Chiefs added him to their active roster this week, uttered the words Kansas City Chiefs fans waited to hear since the All-Pro limped off the field in New England during last year’s playoff loss.

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston answers questions from reporters at the team's training complex after the team added him to the active roster this week. (Photo by Matt Derrick,
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston answers questions from reporters at the team’s training complex after the team added him to the active roster this week. (Photo by Matt Derrick,

“I expect what I normally do: Dominate,” Houston said.

How much Houston plays Sunday against the Carolina Panthers — if he plays at all — remains an open question. He says it’s the coaches’ decision how much he plays.

“Physically I feel like I can play,” Houston said. Now my endurance may be a little behind, because you can practice, you can run all day, but it’s not like the actual game.”

Houston’s return brings a new dimension to the Chiefs defense. At peak form, Houston ranks as one of the league’s premier pass rushers. The speed at which he regains that level impacts how much impact he can make on the team’s defense

Linebacker Derrick Johnson has experience returning from injury after an extended recovery. He said Houston needs time to rediscover his field vision once he’s back in live action.

“He’ll adjust well, but you definitely have got to train your eyes if you’re a hurt guy coming back,” Johnson said.

Linebacker Dee Ford ranks third in the NFL with nine sacks in Houston’s absence on the left side. Ford played all but one of the team’s defense snaps Sunday. Houston’s immediate role as he works his way back could simply be to provide Ford occasional rest.

Houston and Ford together remains a likely option as well, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said.

“I think we’d be open to both,” Sutton said. “Sometimes we play Tamba (Hali) and Justin on the same side together. There’s different defenses those guys are different places.”

But keeping Houston and Ford on the field together at the same time requires creativity. That could mean fewer snaps for linebackers Frank Zombo and Ramik Wilson and safety Daniel Sorenson as the team tweaks its base 3-4 defense.

“I don’t think it will really affect them how we play them,” Sutton said. “It might be based on who else is in the game at the time.”

Safety Eric Berry said Houston’s return adds other intangibles to the team’s defense.

“Having him on the field, having someone with that experience that’s been in a lot of games, a lot of battles, some things you don’t even have to communicate,” Berry said.

That chemistry among the team’s veteran defensive players allows the defense to operate more efficiently, Berry explained.

“That’s the type of thing that helps us play faster,” Berry said.

Mystery still surrounds the exact nature of Houston’s injury. Orthopedic surgeon James Andrews performed a repair on the anterior cruciate ligament in Houston’s left knee on Feb. 15. The ligament did not sustain a tear, according to the team’s head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder.

“It was a little bit tricky because his ACL wasn’t torn, but it wasn’t functioning the way it should, so Dr. Andrews fixed that,” Burkholder said at the time.

Houston confessed feeling concerned before the surgery.

“I knew I couldn’t move the way I wanted to and how I’m capable of moving,” Houston said. “But I knew I would be fine at the end of the day.”

Houston hyperextended the knee in week 12 last season, then missed the remainder of the regular season. He returned for the playoffs against Houston, where he re-aggravated the injury.

The linebacker said it was his choice to return for the playoffs, and doesn’t regret delaying surgery until after the season.

“Not at all. That’s the playoffs,” Houston said. “If we weren’t going to the playoffs, that’s a different story. But there’s guys who play their whole career, 10-plus years, and never go to the playoffs.”

Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for and the Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @MattDerrick.