A Higher Calling: Justin Houston Attributes Monster Season to His Faith

OLB Justin Houston

Justin Houston was in Mexico with his wife shortly after last season ended, debating whether he should hang it up after 12 seasons.

His wife said she didn't think it was time yet, but Houston pushed back. He was putting in a lot of work and the stats just weren't adding up. He had a bunch of quarterback hits, but his sack total had dropped to a career-low 4.5.

It was a second straight year of diminishing returns. For an aging pass rusher (he turned 33 years old 12 days after last season ended), losing even a half-step makes a sizeable difference.

Houston turned off his phone and just prayed.

"At some point, it was clear to me it was God saying, 'Just give me all of you, and I'll give you your desires.' It was strong for like two days on my mind, that's all I kept hearing," Houston said.

"He said, 'But I need all of you,' and that's all I was hearing. So, my main focus this offseason was to just commit my life to God and just give it all to Him."

Houston is reaping the rewards this season. His 8.5 sacks are tied for the fourth-most sacks in the league, training only Matthew Judon (11.5), Nick Bosa (9.5) and Za'Darius Smith (9.5). And that's despite Houston missing three games due to a groin injury.

The Ravens had reached an agreement with Smith this offseason, but he backed out and signed a more lucrative three-year, reported $42 million deal with the Vikings.

Baltimore waited, and waited, for Houston to make a decision on whether he was going to play again. Veteran defensive tackle Calais Campbell, who is three years older than Houston, decided to stiff-arm free agency and re-signed with the Ravens in early April. He texted Houston about once a week to nudge him to do the same.

"He's a guy I have a lot of respect for, the way he plays the game. I knew if we could get him back, it would make us a lot better football team," Campbell said.

Houston eventually decided to come back for another year, inking a one-year, reported $3.5 million deal. That's a far cry from what the Ravens would have been paying Smith, and it allowed the team to make additional moves. Funny how things work out sometimes.

"We got him for a bargain, but the price is going up," cornerback Marlon Humphrey said with a laugh. "He just puts in a lot of work, and he's just always in guys' ears."

Houston had always trained hard during offseasons, but he took it to another level this year. His first workout started at 5 a.m. After dropping the kids at school, he went for a second workout. After an hour-long lunch break, he got in his third workout. Some days, he worked out a fourth time.

In previous offseasons, he would do three (or four) workouts three days a week. This year, he did it five days a week, and sometimes six.

"The process to prepare is so much harder each and every year and the sacrifices you have to make are greater each and every year. It really takes a lot," Campbell said. "I think it takes a very special talent and a whole lot of hard work to do what he's doing. There's only been a few people that played at that high of level into their 30s. I've been lucky enough be one of them myself."

After his monster 2 ½ sack, one interception game in New Orleans before the bye, Houston was asked in the postgame locker room whether he'd found the Fountain of Youth. Nope, but he has dug deep.

"I was definitely on it and definitely putting in the work. It's paying off in a major way," Houston said. "It's definitely God healing me, and renewing me, and giving me my strength, but I think it's [also] the defense as a whole."

Houston is clear that he's also been the beneficiary of his teammates' work as well. Pass rushers can get home when the coverage behind them makes the quarterback hold the ball a little longer.

Under first-year Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald, the Ravens haven't blitzed nearly as much and have used much more zone coverages. Baltimore hasn't been as predictable, and that's helping the pass rush get home more often. The Ravens have 19 sacks in their past five games, and entered the week tied with the eighth-most sacks in the league (27).

Houston has multiple sacks in three straight games, an accomplishment no Ravens player – not even great pass rushers such as Terrell Suggs or Peter Boulware – ever pulled off.

"He was winning a lot of rushes last year; the ball was out," Macdonald said. "So, we felt like if we just get the quarterback to hold the ball a bit longer, his production would spike up. So, [it's] definitely not a surprise, in terms of his ability, but something that I wasn't really aware of was his personality and the things he brought to the unit off the field."

Houston is constantly mentoring the team's younger players, especially fellow outside linebackers Odafe Oweh and rookie David Ojabo. It's not uncommon to see those three among the last ones walking off the practice field.

Oweh called Houston "Yoda" last year because of his pass rush wisdom. This year, the nickname has changed to "Sensei." It might be because Houston started wearing a karate-like headband, but the edgier nickname seems to fit a little better too.

"It was the conviction that he had in himself. This year, the way he attacked his workouts, he was intentional with everything. He knew, spiritually, that if he wanted this to be his last year, God was going to have to show him," Oweh said.

"It's really motivational seeing him tap into a different level like that. You already know how good he is. It's making me want to take it up another notch as well. If a GOAT like that can shut out all the distractions and tie in spiritually, why can't I do that?"

Ojabo called Houston the "O.G." and his "grandfather." Not quite as hardcore, but more reverent.

"Everything is just done right. You just can't help but feed off everything he says," Ojabo said. "You would think because he's older, he would lose the fire. But he's still got a little young in him."

Macdonald was actually a graduate assistant coach at Georgia when Houston was playing there in college. Macdonald remembered the same guy staying after to practice his pass rush moves. Houston led the SEC with 10 sacks in his junior season with Macdonald looking on.

"I was like, 'Dang, this guy is legit,'" Macdonald recalled. "He made it look easy still, back then, so I wouldn't say he's much different."

Houston has always been a passionate player on gamedays. This year, he seems to be taking it to another level to inspire his teammates, just as he's inspired to give it everything he has. In New Orleans, Houston was in Lamar Jackson's ear as the two walked to the locker room after warm-ups, reminding the quarterback that he's been doubted his entire career.

Houston is on a mission. And he's determined to pull everyone else on it with him.

"He's amped up," linebacker Patrick Queen said. "His eyes will be bloodshot red, his nose running like a bull. He's a different dude, man."

Houston's also having fun with it. His son was in the stands in New Orleans, and when Houston got his late-game interception, he got to walk over and hand the ball to his son.

Houston's son has set the bar at 130 career sacks. Asked if that's starting to feel more realistic these days, Houston said, "It's looking like it. I just need to stay on track." But is his son impressed?

"No, I don't think so. I think he's happy, but he still wants more from me," Houston said with a laugh.

"I'm just trying to be the man of God [that] he can have somebody to look up to, so I can actually teach and coach off this one day [and] so I can actually be on him as hard as he is on me. He doesn't know, but it's going to come back to haunt him one of these days (laughs)."

Houston hasn't said this will be his final season, though it was certainly implied when he thought so hard about retiring. His 110.5 career sacks rank third on the active leaders list, trailing only Buffalo's Von Miller (123.5) and New Orleans' Cameron Jordan (112.5).

The four-time Pro Bowler had 22 sacks in 2014, which is just a half-sack behind the single-season record shared by Michael Strahan and T.J. Watt. It's a resume worthy of Hall of Fame consideration someday. But there's one thing missing – a Super Bowl ring.

"I'm sure that's a big motivator for him," said veteran defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who has won two Super Bowls with two different teams. "Now that I'm here, that's one of the things that makes me want to get another ring even more. I'd like to see him have one. Hopefully, it's this year God willing."

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