Before Bills running back LeSean McCoy took the handoff from Tyrod Taylor, the alarm sounded in the head of Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson.
“I saw a certain formation, seen it 50 times,” Johnson said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, here it comes, let’s go.’
“And if it’s not the play I’m thinking I’ll react to whatever it is.”
But Johnson guessed correctly and was in the backfield almost in time to take the handoff, dropping McCoy for a four-yard loss.
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That was a highlight two weeks ago. In the Chiefs’ most recent game, at Oakland, Johnson logged 14 tackles, 13 solos, with two tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Many things have fallen the Chiefs’ way during the six-game winning streak they take into Sunday’s home game against the Chargers, but one of the most encouraging developments has been the elevated play of Johnson.
In his 11th season, he is doing what he did in the best of those years — making tackles. Johnson’s 82 tackles top the Chiefs and are 25 more than their second-leading tackler, Ron Parker.
Johnson is shooting gaps and making tackles. He’s been part of a defense that has held opponents to 13.5 points per game and has forced 2.8 turnovers per game during the Chiefs’ winning streak.
Johnson turned 33 last month, but he said whatever edge he may have lost through the aging process he has more than compensated for in wisdom. This season — especially the second half — has put that on display.
“I’m not saying I can’t physically get the job done. I can,” Johnson said. “I’ve taken care of my body. But the mental part of the game is so important, the preparation part, so you can anticipate and react. I think I’ve been doing that pretty well.”
As with the McCoy play and many others in a season that started with a bit of uncertainty.
Johnson was coming off a torn Achilles suffered in the 2014 season opener. He was lost for the season and had never missed that much action in his career.
“He did a great job coming off a major injury,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “I don’t think he’s lost a lot of skill-set, so that’s huge.”
Johnson gave himself average marks for the first part of the year as the Chiefs got off to a 1-5 start.
“Just OK,” Johnson said. “I went back and watched film and I didn’t feel like I was making a difference. I’m probably harder on myself than coaches are, and wanted to look at the film and be able to say that I was helping. I see that now.”
So have opponents. Johnson came up with his 12th career interception against the Steelers, the victory that started the Chiefs’ current winning streak. He has recorded three sacks in the last five games.
His tackles against Oakland were season bests for solo and total stops, this from the player who became the Chiefs’ career leader in tackles earlier this season.
“I think you can tell in terms of his ability he’s a lot healthier now than he was in the past, and he’s always been a good player,” said Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who has been battling Johnson throughout his career.
“He’s always been a player that we have a ton of respect for, and me, personally, I’m happy to see him back at his form — being able to make the plays that I knew he was capable of making throughout the past and just wasn’t able to do it previously. In my opinion, he’s one of the better linebackers in this game at this point.”
Johnson has been named to three Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro team in 2011. He could be headed for more honors this season, but helping the Chiefs reach the playoffs — and have success there — is his primary objective. Johnson has played in three postseason games, but the Chiefs haven’t won in the playoffs since 1993.
“We still need to get better,” Johnson said. “And we’re still trying to put ourselves in a good position, but I think we can have even more success.”