Chiefs to tackle Titans running game without star linebacker
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs have a multitude of ways to replace Derrick Johnson in the middle of their run defense, whether it’s Frank Zombo, D.J. Alexander or even injured linebacker Justin March-Lillard.
Replacing his leadership is a much bigger challenge.
“That’s a tough void to fill, just the years of experience,” Chiefs safety Eric Berry said. “Just his presence and his IQ that he’s accumulated over the years, just having him out there and understand what the offenses are trying to do — that’s a big deal. We’ll have to figure something out.”
Johnson was lost for the season when he ruptured his Achilles tendon before halftime of last week’s victory over Oakland. It’s the second time the star linebacker has sustained the injury and it couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time with Tennessee rolling into town.
The Chiefs’ run defense is predicated on their defensive front occupying offensive linemen long enough for the linebacker crew to dart in and plays. And that’s a big reason why Johnson, their career tackles leader, had been putting up big numbers again this season.
Now that responsibility falls on the shoulders of others, just as the Titans’ third-ranked rushing attack arrives at Arrowhead Stadium. DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry and Co. are averaging nearly 150 yards rushing per game, and churned out a win over Denver last week despite quarterback Marcus Mariota having arguably his poorest game as a starting quarterback in the NFL.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Berry said, “but I think all of it starts up front. Their offensive line is pretty good, and to pair that with some good backs and a quarterback with some good speed, I think that really opens up the running game.”
Make no mistake, the Chiefs struggled to stop the run ever before Johnson went down.
They gave up 155 yards to the Chargers in their opener. Gave up at least 100 yards in back-to-back games against the Jets and Steelers. Gave up an embarrassing 205 yards against the Jaguars. And now have allowed at least 100 yards rushing each of the past four weeks.
Titans coach Mike Mularkey insisted those numbers are deceiving, though.
“It’s not about yards. It’s never about yards,” he said. “It’s about scoring, and keeping a team from scoring. You can get besieged by all these rankings of the numbers you see, and we’re not going to fall for that. We know what we’re up against. We don’t pay attention to statistics.
“Good example,” Mularkey continued, “is they’re very tough against the run, and they’ve given up some chunk plays to skew that statistic where they’re ranked. If you don’t watch film, don’t understand the game you can fall for that — ‘You can run the ball at will.’ No, this is a good defense, very sound.”
One thing they have going for them is a defensive front that’s a bit healthier. Dontari Poe has been dealing with back spasms, as has fellow defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches, and both of them are expected to play against the Titans.
Throw in the progress of second-round pick Chris Jones and the defensive line could be what prevents the Titans from running all over them.
As for the leadership, turns out there are plenty of guys ready to take over Johnson’s mantle.
Berry has shown leadership since long before his cancer diagnosis a couple years ago, but it has only increased over the past year. Justin Houston is back from his knee injury and playing at a high level. And even second-year cornerback Marcus Peters is the kind of outspoken playmaker that can chip in.
“You know, (Johnson) is a great guy. That’s why you don’t like it,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I mean, he’s such a good person and loves to play the game. He’s (34) years old, and that guy comes out every day like he’s 20. He’s got that kind of injury — yeah, you hate to see that, but he’s also our biggest supporter. I told him he could get a little jump on coaching here and see if he likes it when he’s done.”
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