By Matt Derrick
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Justin Houston ran out of the tunnel and onto the field at Arrowhead Stadium 55 times during the regular season and playoffs as a member of the Chiefs, so it won’t surprise him if old memories come flooding back when he returns as a visitor for the first time on Sunday night.
“I’m pretty sure they will,” Houston said. “I was there eight years, I’m human.”
But much has changed for both Houston and the Chiefs since they were last united together at Arrowhead Stadium. After their loss to New England in the AFC Championship game, the Chiefs parted ways with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and began rebuilding a tattered defense. On March 10, the Chiefs released Houston, making him a free agent after eight seasons in Kansas City.
Houston quickly found a new home in Indianapolis just 11 days later, signing a two-year deal worth $24 million. He instantly brought leadership to the defense, Colts head coach Frank Reich said.
“I think Justin is the consummate pro,” Reich said. “We could not be any more excited with Justin as a player and as a leader on our team. It took him about one day to establish that.”
Houston’s departure from Kansas City was largely fueled by a salary cap number of $21.1 million for the 2019 season. The club recovered $14 million in cap relief parting ways with Houston. But there were also perceptions the Chiefs moved on due to uncertainty with how Houston might adapt to playing in new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defense.
The Colts, however, also run a 4-3 scheme under coordinator Matt Eberflus. Now Houston lines up with his hand in the dirt at defensive end after eight season as an outside linebacker and edge rusher in the 3-4. Reich said Houston made the adjustment with apparent ease.
“Athletically I think he’s in the best shape of his life,” Reich said. “He’s lean, he’s fit, I just feel like the arrow is up. With each week that passes and him getting comfortable in our scheme, it’s just going to get better and better.”
Houston has started with modest stats through the first four games of the season, picking up 11 total tackles and one sack with three quarterback hits. But Chiefs head coach Andy Reid still sees a difference maker on film.
“He’s playing good football,” Reid said. “Fast, strong. They have a good rotation. He’s got his hand down in the ground now. He can rush the passer. He can play the run. He’s a big, strong kid. He’s a good football player. A lot of experience.”
Colts players have quizzed Houston for a scouting report on his former club, but much of the data on the defense is out of date. Not only do the Chiefs have a new defensive scheme and coaching staff, but the faces of the players have changed as well. There are eight new starters in the team’s defensive lineup from the squad Houston played with in the AFC Championship game. Of the 24 defensive players on the Chiefs roster, Houston played with just 13 and only four of those for more than one season.
“A lot of the defensive guys that I was there with, they’re gone,” Houston said. “Most of the people I played with, they’re not even there no more. It’s a bunch of new faces over there I’m not familiar with.”
The most crucial information Houston can provide his new teammates comes from facing Reid’s offense in practice for six seasons having first-hand experience watching quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
“He’s a special guy, he’s one of a kind,” Houston said. “He’s Pat Mahomes. The throws he makes – he can make every throw, he can see everything, he’s got eyes in the back of his head. He’s a great quarterback.”
But institutional knowledge flow both ways The Chiefs know what to expect from Houston as both an pass rusher and run stuffer, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said.
“The thing we want to do is make sure that we’re aware of exactly where he is,” Bieniemy said. “He’s familiar with some things that we do so we just want to make sure he’s accounted.”
Reich understands the emotions of a player returning to their old stomping grounds. He returned twice as a starting quarterback with Carolina and the New York Jets to visit Buffalo, where he played 10 seasons.
“You know it’s always special and unique, and he’s had a lot of success in Kansas City and I have no doubt he is really close with that organization and a lot of people there,” Reich said. “I’m sure it will mean a lot to him going back into Arrowhead.”
Houston doesn’t want this homecoming to turn into a melodramatic trip down memory lane. He wants his return to Kansas City to be simply the next game of the season.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” Houston said. “I don’t want it to get in the way of what I got to do. I’m going there to play a game, I’m not really worried about my past.”
Houston doesn’t expect the game to turn into a family reunion. He doesn’t plan to go on the field for warmups, preferring to work in the locker room. When he comes onto the field in his white and blue No. 99 jersey, he wants it to be just a regular game and not worry about where he is.
“Just treat it like every other game,” Houston said. “Focus on what I’ve got to do and focus on me and not them.”
Houston hopes the Colts can build a lead on the Chiefs early. He wants to pin his ears back in the fourth quarter and rush Mahomes with reckless abandon, just like any other quarterback. Reich believes Houston can produce in a situation like that.
“I think there’s a lot left in the tank and we just high expectations for how he’s going to produce as we go forward,” Reich said.
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and a contributor for Sports Radio 810 WHB. Follow him on Twitter @mattderrick.