Derrick Johnson has set the tone early for Chiefs with big defensive plays

Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson doesn’t believe in wasting any time on a football field.

Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler, has had a knack for making impact plays early in games that have been instrumental in the Chiefs building a 10-3 record and moving to within a victory of clinching a playoff spot.

Johnson’s first-quarter interception in last Sunday’s 45-10 win at Washington was at least the sixth time this year he has set the tone with either a big stop, sack or takeaway in the opening period.

“The coaches give me leeway and the freedom to make some plays, to take some chances at times,” Johnson said. “That is a big part of my game, jumping pass (routes) or running backside or using my speed to jump in the backfield and get the running back down.”

That freedom must be earned, and the coaching staff believes Johnson, 31, deserves it.

“He’s a great player, time tested,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be around some great players, and when you need a play, they somehow make a play. He’s done it year after year.”

Among Johnson’s key first-quarter plays this season:

• Tipping a pass by Michael Vick that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Eric Berry on Philadelphia’s third play of the game in week three.

• Sacking Oakland’s Terrelle Pryor for a 7-yard loss on the opening series on Oct. 13.

• Pouncing on a missed handoff between Peyton Manning and running back Montee Ball at Denver on Nov. 17.

On Sunday, Johnson read Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III’s eyes, and the moment Griffin let go of the ball, Johnson was in its path for the interception that set up the Chiefs’ second touchdown of the game and a commanding 17-0 lead.

“You get to a point in your career, where different times in a game, or different schemes, you know when to take a chance or when not to take a chance,” said Johnson, the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick in 2005 and most-tenured position player on the team.

“Earlier in my career, I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle the freedom I have now to get the job done for the team. I’ve been fortunate enough to be blessed to get better every year, and I’m to a point, certain defenses coaches let me free up a little bit. A lot of stuff goes on when I make a play a lot of other guys doing a perfect job.”

Indeed, Griffin was under some duress from the Chiefs’ pass rush when he tried to hit Pierre Garcon on a short crossing pattern.

“He was trying to get the ball out fast,” Johnson said. “I got a good jump on it. He tried to stick it in there, and I was right in the window.”

Johnson made the interception at the Chiefs’ 35 and set sail for the end zone on the icy field, but Griffin hauled him down after a 41-yard return to the Washington 24.

“I don’t have that world-class speed like RGIII has,” Johnson said of Griffin, the former Heisman Trophy winner at Baylor. “Even though he has a bum leg, he can still run. If the field was clear, maybe I could have hugged the sideline a little bit more and try to run away from him, but he did a good job of not giving up on the play.”

The interception was the first for Johnson since 2011 and 10th of his NFL career. There was a time early in his career when Johnson let several interceptions slip through his fingers, but he’s now more sure-handed.

“He’s a real smart linebacker,” said backup James-Michael Johnson. “He makes the plays he’s supposed to make and plays he’s not supposed to make. That’s what makes him really good.”

So good for so long that Johnson will enter Sunday’s game at Oakland needing four tackles for the sixth 100-tackle season of his career. Johnson is 30 shy of 1,000 career tackles, which would break the franchise record of 999 set by linebacker Gary Spani, during 1978-86 (tackles have been compiled since 1977).

“It’s been a staple for me to make more plays,” Johnson said, “and since 2009, 2010, my tackles have gone up, and that’s due to what the coaches have allowed me to do. I’m having fun on defense.”

He’s having even more fun winning. With a win or tie on Sunday or a Miami loss or tie with New England before Johnson takes the field at Oakland, the Chiefs would be assured of the postseason for the third time in his career.

“It’s going to feel great,” Johnson said. “Every year you go into a season trying to get to the playoffs, trying to win the big one. To actually have a chance to clinch it before the season is over it’s going to be gratifying, a humbling experience just because of what we went through last year. This team has a tremendous amount of character, and it showed up big time this year.”

Because of that character, Johnson believes this team has a better chance to advance than Chiefs’ playoff teams that were eliminated in one game in 2006 and 2010.

“I feel more confident in our team,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t feel like a first rodeo type team. The guys we have in this room they can get a lot of good things done.

“It’s not a fluke. We have the right chemistry, the right ingredients to get some things done. We’ve been in some tough games, a lot of close games. Our confidence level is very high,. That’s going to pay dividends later.”

Johnson, who has now played for five head coaches in Kansas City, is also confident in Reid and the history of playoff success he’s brought to the Chiefs.

“Not to compare others,” Johnson said, “but Andy knows a lot knows what he’s doing. He’s a guy who has been through this before. He’s had a lot of success. For him to come to us at this time, the timing was great.”

Derrick Johnson’s wake-up calls

Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson has had a knack for making big plays in the first quarter of games this season.

Date, opponentPlayResultScore
Sept. 19 at PhiladelphiaTipped pass on Eagles’ third playEric Berry INT for a TDW, 26-16
Sept. 29 vs. N.Y. GiantsTackled receiver Dar’rel Scott for no gain on Giants’ first playForced puntW, 31-7
Oct. 13 vs. OaklandSacked Terrell Pryor for 7 yards on third play Forced puntW, 24-7
Oct. 27 vs. ClevelandTackled Willis McGahee for minus-2 yards on first play Forced puntW, 23-17
Nov. 17 at DenverRecovered Peyton Manning fumble Chiefs lost fumble on next playL, 27-17
Dec. 8 at WashingtonIntercepted Robert Griffin III’s fifth pass of game Chiefs TD pass to Dwayne BoweW, 45-10
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