Brian Urlacher pulled Todd Haley aside after the Chiefs 10-3 victory in Chicago on Sunday afternoon. He’d just stood on the opposing sideline and witnessed, firsthand, what
Johnson led the Chiefs in tackles yet another week and he remains on pace to shred the team’s single-season tackle record by nearly 20 stops. Mike Maslowski put together a record-setting 162-tackle season in 2002. Johnson is on pace to record over 180 tackles this year.
But it’s not the quantity of tackles that’s impressive. Urlacher has seen that before. He owns an All-Pro resume and is closing in on 1,300 career stops himself.
Johnson’s play this season is head-turning because of its consistency. He’s making all of the plays. Not just the game-changing plays, but everything in between as well.
“When Urlacher gets me after the game and says ‘that number 56 is something else’ you know that’s saying something,” Haley said.
“Whenever you have a player of his caliber to hand out a compliment, it’s always well-taken and well-respected,” Johnson added. “I was obviously watching him on the field as he commanded his defense.”
A snapshot of Johnson’s entire season can be summarized in just one play from Sunday’s game.
Midway through the first quarter, Johnson stuffed Bears RB Matt Forte at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Forte unfortunately suffered a sprained MCL on the play, but Johnson’s completion of the tackle is one of the more impressive of his seven-year career.
Johnson stayed patient as a weak-side inside linebacker, read the counter handoff to Forte, and defeated a one-on-one block from pulling TE Matt Spaeth before crashing into Forte’s right knee for a solo tackle.
“He was kind of blind to the runner and it’s really not even his play to make,” Haley explained. “But when you have somebody as talented as Derrick and playing at the level that he is playing, he obviously has the green light to make some of those plays and it’s not an easy play to make. I think that’s kind of what caught Forte off guard.”
Spaeth, who’s considered a very good blocking tight end, was left pounding the Soldier Field grass after completely whiffing on the block. Forte had no time to react.
Johnson has always been a talented player with rare athleticism, but he’s been labeled an inconsistent performer throughout much of his career as well. He was the definition of the “yo-yo” type that Haley sought to eliminate from the team during the 2009 season.
That was a rough year for Johnson. He started only three games and was regulated to sub-package snaps in Kansas City’s new 3-4 defense. Fans often wondered aloud why the former first-round pick wasn’t playing more, but Johnson came out of the situation a better player.
Since pairing with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, Johnson has found consistency and tallied back-to-back 100-tackle seasons for the first time in his career. He believes, without a doubt, that he’s currently turning in the best season of his career at 29 years old.
“I think it’s me being more consistent game-in and game-out, not falling off and having just an okay game,” Johnson said. “It’s due to coaching and it’s due to a lot of things. There is definitely a group of people that are helping my success right now.”
“He’s just been a little better at everything,” Haley added. “Even some of the non-tackle plays he makes, where he takes on two guards or a guard and a tackle so somebody else can make the plays, he’s really playing good and it appears he can still even get better and that’s the scary thing - a good thing for us.”
We’ve come to expect big plays from Johnson.
He returned two interceptions for touchdowns against Denver in the 2009 finale and added another pick-six against Jacksonville last season. Johnson also turned in 16 pass breakups last year and entered this season with three or more forced fumbles in three of his last four campaigns.
This year, Johnson has only one interception that was returned for just one yard. He’s yet to force a fumble and he hasn’t recovered one either.
Still, Johnson is turning in more big plays than in any season he’s played. He’s not streaky-good. He’s consistently good.
“I’m trying to have really good games back-to-back and the biggest thing is helping our team win,” Johnson said. “That’s all I care about. I’m just trying to be a part of helping my team win.”
If Johnson doesn’t earn his first career Pro Bowl invite after this season it will be an absolute travesty.