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Chiefs linebackers look to reach new heights in 2012

Posted Jun 24, 2012

Kansas City's linebacking unit has garnered plenty of attention this off-season

Tamba Hali didn’t go to Hawaii to scuba dive or relax by the pool.

As far as he was concerned, his first trip to the Pro Bowl as a starter was a business one. And Hali made sure he used his week in Honolulu to pick the brains of his pass-rushing peers.

"I got a chance to see some of the better players in this league," said Hali about his experience at the 2011 Pro Bowl last January. "(You) go against them and compare yourself, and actually talk to guys like Dwight Freeney who has been an elite pass rusher in this league. Just talking to him and seeing where his mind is and how he prepares for games (was fun)."

It won't be long until younger players approach Hali for advice. The seven-year veteran totaled 12 sacks in 2011, which followed a 14.5-sack campaign in 2010, and he said that his Pro Bowl experience would help him improve in 2012.

An improved Hali is a scary thought for opponents. According to players that voted in the NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2012" list, Hali is the 34th-best player in the league--only three spots behind Super Bowl XLVI MVP Eli Manning. But Hali isn't the only Chiefs linebacker focused on improving this season, and that mindset could help the Chiefs boast the NFL's most dangerous linebacking corps from top to bottom.

ESPN.com blogger Bill Williamson named three Chiefs in the top five of his positional rankings for the AFC West. Out of the Chiefs four starting linebackers, only inside linebacker Jovan Belcher landed outside the top ten.

Hali was ranked No. 1, but Belcher's partner at inside linebacker wasn't far behind.

Like Hali, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson finally received some much-deserved recognition from Pro Bowl voters last season. He went to Honolulu for the first time as a non-alternate as a reward for his 131 tackles, two sacks, and two interceptions in 2011.

Based on his play during offseason workouts, Johnson could have an even better 2012 season. He ranked as the 78th-best player in the NFL's Top 100 ranking, and his one-handed pick-and-cradle interception during an OTA scrimmage proved that the eight-year veteran has no plans of slowing down.

Defensive end Glenn Dorsey said Johnson brings just as much to the Chiefs in between plays as he does during them. 

“He’s the leader of the defense and he’s just so consistent,” said Dorsey, who voted Johnson as team MVP last season. “He was more vocal and he owns the leadership of our defense (last season) more than any other time since I’ve been here. He commands the huddle."

That huddle will feature two 2011 Pro Bowlers and another up-and-coming player, according to Williamson. Outside linebacker Justin Houston--No. 5 on Williamson's list--registered 5.5 sacks last season as a rookie, including a breakout three-sack game against the Chicago Bears.

His continued development as a pass-rusher will only make the Chiefs defense even more dangerous. If Houston can be a force from one side, opposing teams will no longer have the easy decision of double-teaming Hali from the other side.

After a dominant preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens last year, Houston told Hali he would earn double-digit sacks in the regular season. This year, Houston thinks he can actually make that jump.

“I built up my confidence in that game (against the Chicago Bears) and I just took it and kept running with it," said Houston. "The coaches told me to keep running with it and that’s what I’m doing.”

Coaches have no reason to doubt Houston—and the linebacking unit as a whole, will improve this season. With Johnson and strong-side thumper Jovan Belcher (No. 15 on Williamson’s list) holding down the middle, Houston and Hali can make more plays from the outside.

If that happens, more accolades are sure to come Hali’s way—the most meaningful of which come from the players he quizzed at last year’s Pro Bowl.

“It means a lot,” said Hali of the recognition he’s been given from other players. “(It means) guys looking at me and ranking me somewhere and saying that this guy does his job. These are your colleagues, that’s how they feel about you, so it means a lot.”

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