The following is not written to diminish Derrick Johnson, because it would be patently ridiculous to diminish the impact of one of the game’s great middle linebackers.
Johnson is a coach’s and front office’s dream, a model teammate on the practice field and in the meeting room, and among the best at what he does on gameday. When his Achilles’ tendon snapped in the second quarter of the first game of the season, with the Chiefs being blown out by the awful Titans, it was easy to imagine the rest of the schedule turning into a weekly shootout that the Chiefs would never win.
Except, well, the Chiefs are one of the league’s hottest teams. They’ve won six of seven, highlighted by a dismantling of the Patriots and also featuring road wins over three teams that are currently .500 or better.
The kicker — and, again, no disrespect to Johnson — is they’re doing it in large part with defense.
Remember how dominating the Chiefs were on defense during last year’s 9-0 start? What if you read that in some real ways, they’re even better during this 6-3 start — without Johnson and defensive lineman Mike DeVito for virtually the entire season, and safety Eric Berry for most of it?
Consider this: Compared to the same point last year, the 2014 Chiefs have given up fewer passing yards, fewer rushing yards and fewer first downs. They’re second in the league in fewest points allowed, and if we’re measuring them against the first nine games of last year, they’re doing this with rummies like the Jaguars and Raiders replaced by powerhouses like the Broncos and Patriots.
Last year, the schedule included quarterbacks like Blaine Gabbert, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum and Jeff Tuel.
This year, it’s Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick and Philip Rivers.
Put it all together, and there’s a very good case to be made that the Chiefs’ defense is even better this year than during that strong start to 2013. And they’ve done this without perhaps their most important player and a stout run-stopper?
“There hasn’t been a ton of difference,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said when asked about adjustments to the defense after those injuries. “But at the same time, you try to play to your players’ strengths.”
The bulk of Johnson’s responsibilities have gone to Josh Mauga, a Hawaiian who went undrafted out of Nevada and started a total of one game in four seasons with the Jets before joining the Chiefs this year.
Bob Sutton was the defensive coordinator with the Jets before coming to Kansas City last year, so Mauga’s familiarity with the system was vital as the Chiefs needed to replace not just Johnson’s production, but his communication.
With Johnson out, Mauga is the one with the green dot on his helmet, the quarterback of the defense who gets the calls transmitted to a speaker wedged in his helmet.
“The first couple of weeks, I tried to put myself in Derrick shoes,” Mauga says. “I tried to be too much like him. I had to take it back a few steps and be me. I can’t be DJ. Nobody can be DJ. I just have to be as good as I can be.”
Mauga has been plenty good, the team leader with 55 tackles, but it’s both wrong and misleading to suggest he’s why the defense has remained so stout without Johnson.
The Chiefs, like most teams, are programmed to say and think “next man up” when someone goes down. But if you look at the video and numbers, they’ve compensated with more of a team-wide approach — not just the defense, but the whole team.
Because even as Mauga has outplayed what anyone could’ve expected from him, the Chiefs still miss Johnson’s speed and mind.
This is especially true against the run — a particular concern this weekend since the Seahawks lead the NFL in rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. Only the Giants have allowed more yards per rush than the Chiefs.
The Chiefs, though, have at least so far navigated that weakness by making up for it in other ways. Most obviously, they’re very good against the pass, and for the Chiefs that starts in front of Mauga. Linebacker Justin Houston leads the NFL with 12 sacks, which he’s made in large part because Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey have dented the front of the pocket and teams are always conscious of Tamba Hali on the other side.
Defensive back Ron Parker was fabulous against the Bills — the Chiefs probably lose that game without him — and Husain Abdullah and Sean Smith have been vastly better than a year ago.
For Abdullah, it could be as simple as another year in the system and finally getting a full-time chance. For Smith, he seems to be more consistently focused. He has always had a skill-set that’s perfect for Sutton’s defense.
But even that doesn’t explain it all. The defense gets help from the offense. For all of the limitations of the Chiefs’ offense — underwhelming receivers, lack of big plays, no real downfield threat — they are subtly great at controlling the ball.
Their average drive takes three minutes, most in the NFL. Overall, they rank sixth in average time of possession, and fourth in plays per drive.
Perhaps most importantly, the Chiefs are usually playing with the lead. In the last seven games, they’ve trailed for just 91 of a possible 420 minutes. The Chiefs’ defense has a lot of strengths but ranks second-to-last in both turnovers forced and yards per rush allowed. Playing from ahead helps hide these weaknesses.
In a league so structured for parity, NFL games are often won by the team that makes itself greater than the sum of its parts. The Chiefs have been as good at that as anyone in the league so far, particularly considering the injuries to DeVito, Berry and, most importantly, Johnson.
That’s been most evident looking at the defense, but this has very much been a team effort.
A team effort that may face its toughest test this weekend, against a stout defense that won’t be quick to fall behind and the league’s best running attack.