With Josh Mauga out, the Chiefs’ young inside linebackers have been tasked with rising to the occasion.
Second-year pros Justin March and Ramik Wilson are battling it out for playing time next to Derrick Johnson as Mauga, a starter, nurses an injured groin.
March isn’t one to rest on his laurels. Never has been, really.
So while you could say March should be happy about having earned his first NFL start last Saturday, in the Chiefs’ 21-20 preseason loss to the Los Angeles Rams, March is much more level-headed about it than most would be.
“I felt alright about it,” said March, who recorded a tackle in 12 plays next to star inside linebacker Johnson. “I still have a lot of things to work on and clean up … I don’t think I did too bad. I think if I minimize a few mistakes, the defense, as a whole will play a little better.”
The No. 1 priority for the Chiefs’ first-string defense in their third preseason game against the Bears on Saturday will be shoring up their run defense. The unit surrendered 84 yards on 16 carries in the first half, an average of 5.25 yards per carry. March, an undrafted free agent a year ago, got the nod next to Johnson in the first quarter, while Wilson, a fourth-round pick in 2015, played most of the second quarter.
Both are getting so much first-team work — the 6-foot-2, 237-pound Wilson actually got the start against Seattle the week before.
“Both of them are doing a pretty good job,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of March and Wilson. “They’re still learning on the job, so there are some snaps they would like to have back, but there are some pretty good snaps in there too.”
The 6-foot, 230-pound March said the presence of Johnson, a four-time Pro Bowler, has made the adjustment easier.
“It’s actually hard to be wrong when D.J. is in there,”March said. “He’s a great athlete and he knows the ins and outs (of offenses), so if you go in there and do something outside the playbook, he usually cleans up for it.”
Still, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said the battle between March, who has recorded three tackles in 44 defensive snaps this preseason, and Wilson, who has recorded five tackles in 36 snaps, remains close.
“You love the idea that there’s competition and that they’re going to make a decision that’s hard,” Sutton said. “We’ll just really have to see how it shakes out here in the next two weeks. For the situation with Josh (Mauga) out, it’s a pretty good fall back for us.
“We’re trying to get as many evaluations as we can on these guys and give them a chance to go against the first unit of whoever you’re playing and kind of see it as close to game as you can on a more limited basis.”
It’s unclear when Mauga will be able to return to practice, but the 29-year-old seven-year veteran — who played under Sutton with the New York Jets — remains one of Sutton’s most trusted players.
“We think practicing is important, but we’re also aware that there are times when you can’t go,” Sutton said. “Josh has played a lot of plays for us since he’s been here. You know, came in and was going to be a backup in 2014 and played 1,000 snaps. We’re confident that when he comes in, when he’s healthy and when he’s ready — we’ll get him back in there.
“We’re fortunate that he’s played in defenses, both here and in New York. He’s got that going for him, and that’s an advantage.”
But while Mauga is out, the job will continue to fall on March and Wilson.
March consistently flashed in training camp, but much of that came as a “will” or weakside backer, which is the position Johnson plays. Johnson’s not going anywhere, so March has had to adjust to Mauga’s position of “Mike” backer, which has been easier said than done, even with Johnson’s presence.
“As far as like, taking on blockers, it’s a little slower than the “will” position, but it’s something I’m getting more and more comfortable with everyday,” March said.
Still, Sutton is confident March can adequately make the adjustment, especially since offensive sub-packages like three-wide sets, essentially render the position designations moot, anyway.
“The quote ‘Mike linebacker’ is a lot more prevalent in the two-back type of things that we see, and then once you get to sub they become a little more interchangeable anyway — you just have different job descriptions,” Sutton said.
Regardless of where he’s playing, however, March said that against Chicago, he’s primarily focused on improving his run defense.
“I’d say getting off blockers and making plays — that’s the name of the game, just know your assignment, how to do it and then executing it,” March said. “I want to go out there, play hard, play mistake free and go out there and fly around and have fun with that starting unit.”