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Chiefs in Focus: Spotlight on the Linebackers

Posted Aug 4, 2014

In this series we’ll take an in-depth look at each positional group of the Kansas City Chiefs; today it’s the linebackers

There isn’t a better positional group on the Kansas City Chiefs roster than at linebacker. There were six linebackers in the Pro Bowl from the AFC last year, half of which were Chiefs.

When you add in first-round pick Dee Ford, who has been impressive throughout his first couple of weeks of training camp, plus a few other key veterans, there’s no doubt it’s the single most impressive positional group on the Chiefs roster.

“It’s an outstanding group,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “I think one thing that is really exciting for all of us is that the level of competition both inside and outside has really improved. And that’s a huge plus for us as a defense [and] for us as a team.”

Starting with the inside linebackers, the core of this group surrounds nine-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowler, Derrick Johnson.

Johnson, the Chiefs first-round pick out of the University of Texas back in 2005, has had nothing short of a spectacular career thus far in Kansas City. Johnson is just 19 tackles short of passing Chiefs great Gary Spani (999) as the team’s all-time leading tackler.

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid recently praised Johnson after practice.

“He’s a pro, in every aspect of it, he’s a pro,” Reid said. “Just handles everything the right way: classroom, on the field, off the field. He’s top notch. Good leader.”

In addition to the tackles, Johnson has 22.5 sacks and 11 interceptions in his career from the weakside inside linebacker position.

“He is obviously a big part of our defense,” Sutton said. “In the time I have been here, he has improved all the time, which has kind of been his trademark since he has been in the league. I think he will continue to do it; he works hard, he prepares well [and] comes back in great condition.”

With Sutton being his fourth defensive coordinator since coming into the league, Johnson knows his second year in the same system will make it that much easier.

“You have more confidence, especially in the scheme,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of responsibility in this defense, and I just feel that much better about it.”

While four coordinators may seem like a lot, Johnson has had “eight or nine” different “Mike” backers playing next to him since 2005.

The Chiefs brought in veteran linebacker Joe Mays this offseason.

“Joe brings communication to the game, physicality to the game,” Johnson said. “He’s a very smart player. When a new guy comes in – old or new – we just have to get him acclimated to the system.”

Mays, a five-year NFL veteran, has spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans. Even after just a few training camp practices, Mays can already see the benefit of playing next to Johnson.

“He makes us look good with the plays that he makes,” Mays said. “The way he moves around the field and that he’s always in the right place at the right time. He’s a great leader and a great guy to emulate your game after. When you have a player like that playing right next to you, you try and learn as much as you can from him.”

While learning as much as he can from Johnson, Mays understands the kind of linebacking group the Chiefs have as a whole right now.

“This is one of the best groups I’ve been around,” Mays said. “To have three Pro Bowl guys in one position group, it doesn’t get any better than that. They’ve been here for a while, I’m the new kid on the block. I just come in and do my part and do what I can to make sure I’m not the weak link of the linebacking crew or the defense.”

Mays has seen the majority of the first-team reps next to Johnson so far during training camp, but there’s a few talented players behind him pushing for their own spots in this linebacking crew.

Nico Johnson, James-Michael Johnson, Josh Mauga and Alonzo Highsmith provide depth at inside linebacker.

Nico Johnson, the second-year player from Alabama, is a noted run-stuffer who lost weight this offseason in hopes of being better against the pass.

“He came back in phenomenal shape,” Reid said. “You’re looking at a big, strong linebacker right now who is better against the run than the pass, but he’s working like crazy on the pass. You can see the strides he’s making out here.”

James Michael-Johnson enters his third year in the league and provides flexibility at both linebacker spots. He’s able to play both the “Mike” and “Will,” and also gives you something on special teams.

Mauga, who is entering his fifth NFL season, also provides the ability to play different linebacking positions. This is something Sutton already knew after coaching Mauga with the New York Jets.

“He’s versatile,” Sutton said. “He can play either position on base or sub. He was a backup outside linebacker for us as well. When you’re trying to put your travel team together, that’s a huge plus when you can get a guy to play multiple positions.”

Mauga also knows an ability to play special teams will be key for him as well.

“That’s where I started my career off-- special teams,” Mauga said. “I love the special teams. If you can get out there and make plays, and show that you can block, you can play a long time in the league.”

Meanwhile, the outside linebacker position already boasts two household names in Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.

Hali, a nine-year NFL veteran, has 73 sacks in his career, which puts him third all-time in Chiefs history.

One of the biggest storylines throughout training camp and the preseason surrounds how the Chiefs will try and get Hali, Houston and first-round pick, Dee Ford, on the field together.

Sutton has touched on the topic by saying they’ll utilize the players skillsets in the best way they can.

Houston believes the speed of all three players will help bring pressure.

“I think it’s going to be very effective,” Houston said. “There’s a lot more speed out there at one time. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback.”

Hali spoke about the bigger picture in adding to an already talented defense.

“I’m starting to take pride in what the Chiefs organization has done with drafting guys who can get after the passer,” Hali said. “Each year we’re bringing in better guys. To put together a group like what they’re trying to do, having all of us get after the passer—it’s going to help our team.”

Houston, who has 26.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons, has paired with Hali to form the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL according to NFL.com.

But Hali says there’s another guy too in second-year player Josh Martin. He worked out with Hali during the offseason and impressed the Pro Bowl player.

“Josh and I have worked together this entire offseason,” Hali said. “We went out to California, we ran sand dunes; the kid is gifted. He’s very fast, very strong, and very smart.

“That’s the future. Those guys are going to be around for quite a bit. It’s good to be able to work with them. I wish I had the speed Josh (Martin) has, and I wish I was as strong as Justin (Houston), but with the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years, I’m able to pass it on to these guys, and I mean, they can run with it.”

Some of the knowledge Hali hopes to pass along to these younger players is the mindset needed to be a successful pass rusher in the NFL, something these guys know Hali has proven to be.

“The will to be able to lose a lot of fights and get right back up and keep doing it,” Hali said. “A lot of guys get discouraged while rushing because they can’t win. You have to be very strong-minded and constantly keep plugging away.

“But that’s what makes a good pass rusher to me; you’ve got to have will. You can have all the moves in the world but if you don’t have any will, you’re not going to get there.”

Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo provide veteran depth at outside linebacker as well. Both players saw plenty of action last season when Hali and Houston missed time with injury.

One of the young players who is learning from Hali at training camp is Ford, who couldn’t be more excited to join this linebacking crew.

“I think about it all the time,” Ford said. “This is pass-rush city.”

Ford, a standout defensive player for Auburn and the Chiefs first-round pick this year, picked up 20.5 sacks and 91 tackles in college.

As much as his pass-rushing repertoire is talked about, Ford has impressed his coaches with his all-around ability in training camp.

“Obviously we talk about his pass rush,” Sutton said. “But the thing he has done out here that I thought has been really impressive: he’s been a guy that has set the edge in the running game. That is the key part if you are going to play on all downs.”

Fans will be watching Ford throughout the preseason not only for his all-around ability, but for the times he potentially finds his way onto the field with both Hali and Houston, something opposing quarterbacks won’t necessarily be as excited to witness.

Johnson, Hali and the rest of the veterans will be looked upon to lead a Chiefs team with high expectations into the 2014 season.

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