James Houston hit the NFL like a ball of fire last season, terrorizing opposing quarterbacks with eight sacks in seven games.
He led the NFL in snap-adjusted sack production as a rookie, recording one sack every 17.5 snaps — NFL sack leader Nick Bosa averaged one sack every 40 snaps, by comparison — and teamed with Aidan Hutchinson (9.5 sacks) to give the Detroit Lions one of the best young pass rush duos in the league.
But as the second-year linebacker gets ready for his encore presentation, he’s determined to diversify his game.
“It’s easy to go out there and say, ‘Look, I’m just going to run around the edge and win,’” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn told the Free Press this week. “He does it really well. But is that all he wants to be? I think he would tell you, ‘Hell no, I want to be a complete football player.’”
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One of a handful of veterans to stay in town for the final four practices of organized team activities this week, Houston said one of his goals this season is to be an every-down player on the Lions defense.
He is expected to compete for the starting strong-side linebacker job with Charles Harris and Julian Okwara once training camp opens in July, and though he spent most of OTAs playing behind Harris and Okwara in the rotation, he has made headway in his quest.
A designated pass rusher when he debuted off the Lions’ practice squad last Thanksgiving, Houston made two January starts against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers that gave him a taste of an every-down role.
He spent this spring working out with teammates Alex Anzalone, Cam Sutton and Ifeatu Melifonwu, where he incorporated defensive back drills into his practice routine. And beyond dominating the Lions’ second- and third-team offensive lines this spring, he’s shown a better grasp of the nuances of Glenn’s defense.
“For me, I’ve got to get on the field,” Houston said. “I don’t know what that looks like, but I got to figure something out. Just like last year, it was just like they didn’t really know where to put me. I feel like it’s kind of similar, the same way. They don’t really know where to put me, and so I’m kind of that guy, hopefully I can be a chess piece and not too much of a liability, I guess, where I really can only play one position, where you can move me in different ways and put me on the field. So that’s really my goal, to get the team to be able to trust me enough to get to that point.”
Houston has natural linebacker skills, having started his college career as an off-ball linebacker at Florida before transferring to Jackson State.
But he played mostly on special teams for the Gators and blossomed as an NFL prospect only after he transitioned to a pass rush role in his lone season with the Tigers.
Last year, Houston’s head was admittedly spinning at times getting adjusted to an NFL playbook. This spring, coaches agree he has taken steps towards being a more well-rounded player.
“It’s clear to him that, man, in order for me to take that next step, I have to be able to be a damn good player against the run in base, against the run in sub,” Glenn said. “When it comes to rushing the passer, when I’m working with somebody else, I have to be really, really good at being able to work with somebody else as far as any games or things like that. And that’s what’s going to take him to the next level and not just be somebody on the edge, cause at some point they’re going to know exactly who you are and they’re going to be able to defend you just cause they know exactly what you want to do.”
Lions linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said Houston’s development is a matter of time on task. The more reps he gets as a run defender, the firmer edge he sets. And the more stunts he’s a part of, the better he understands the sacrifices pass rushers sometimes have to make.
“Everybody knows what James is capable of doing athletically, but when you get out there with those other 10 men, it’s a lot more than just athletic ability,” Sheppard said. “It’s buying in, doing things within the framework of the scheme, and that’s kind of the things we’ve been working on with him over the course of the offseason is you’re not just going after the quarterback, this is an actual play where you have actual responsibility. So just making sure he hones in on the little things. Because James is a very heady player actually, it’s just him honing in on the details of the little nuances within the scheme.”
Houston won’t ever lose sight of his pass rush ability. He’s aiming for double-digit sacks this season, and regardless of his role, should play enough to get there.
But he’s done judging his worth by sacks, and that could make him and the Lions better down the road.
“I know I did some pretty spectacular things (last season), but it was really just a confidence boost for me knowing that I can do it at this level because I knew I could do it, it was just, I never knew if I was going to get the opportunity, one, and I never knew if the timing was right,” Houston said. “If the cards were going to play out for me. But things ended up being what they were and by the grace of God, he blessed me to be able to do what I did and I just got to continue to build upon that. He gave me these blessings, I need to fulfill it.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.