Justin Houston nearly set an NFL record last season, racking up 22 sacks. It’s easy to understand why an athletic, 6’3” 258-pound outside linebacker would be tough for any tackle to keep away from the quarterback. But there are a lot of defensive players in the NFL that are athletic and powerful, and they don’t finish with 22 sacks in a season. So why has Houston become one of the league’s best pass rushers?
Yes, the athleticism is a factor. The power and explosiveness are definitely factors too. He gets low and plays with great leverage. He can bull rush and drive a tackle 60 pounds heavier than him back into the quarterback. He can dip his shoulder around the edge and win with speed. However, it’s how he uses his hands that separates him.
It’s always important for a pass rusher to get his hands on a blocker before the blocker can, and Houston does that. Yet, it’s the location of his hands that gives him an advantage. The majority of the time, Houston aligns on the left side of the defense against the right tackle. So his first move is often to control the tackle by getting his right arm on the tackle’s left shoulder, as shown below.
Why the shoulder and not the chest? It’s simple. This technique does a better job of getting the tackle off balance. When you put your hands on a blocker’s chest and drive him back, you’re trying to drive through his core, the strongest part of his body. It’s easier for the blocker to maintain his balance and recover after an initial rush in that case. But when you push a blocker by his shoulder, this turns his body, which gets him completely off kilter. J.J. Watt likes to use this technique often.
Sometimes, Houston will then knock down the tackle’s other hand, dip his shoulder and accelerate past him around the edge. Other times, though, he grabs the tackle’s right wrist, as shown here.
This serves a similar purpose as the shoulder. It helps force the tackle off balance.
But Houston doesn’t stop there. He tugs the tackle down by his wrist, ending any shot the tackle has of staying in front of him. Again, look at Houston’s left hand below. He had just started yanking the tackle’s arm down. Look at how the tackle is starting to lose his balance and lean.
After the tug is done, the tackle is almost on the ground, and Houston is by him on the way to the quarterback.
There is no question that it helps Houston to have a pass rusher like Tamba Hali playing across from him. It certainly helps that Houston plays on the left side against the right tackle the majority of the time. But Houston has done exactly what any player needs to do to be successful at the NFL level. Instead of just relying on his physical talent, he has mastered the subtleties of his position.