Josh Mauga and Derrick Johnson have a good working relationship. That's important, considering the starting middle linebackers in the Chiefs' 3-4 scheme often have to be on the same page in order to stop the run.
“I try to compete with him,” Mauga said with a laugh. “I’ll tell him before the snap that I’m gonna beat him to this play, I’m gonna take on this block and make the tackle. He gets excited about it too and he ends up making the play, anyway.”
Johnson, indeed, has won their friendly competition more often than not ― his 100 total tackles lead the team, while Mauga has 48 in two fewer games.
However, after ranking 28th in run defense last season, the Chiefs now boast the league's seventh-best run defense, allowing only 92.2 yards per game ― and it would be a mistake to minimize the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder's role in that.
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While Johnson's quickness and instincts from the 'Will” inside position are a significant reason for the Chiefs' improvement ― remember, he missed 15 games last season with an Achilles injury last year ― Mauga's willingness to take on blockers from his “Mike” inside position allows Johnson to do his thing.
“Oh, I love it,” Mauga said. “I like to be in the middle, I like taking on blocks. The Will has to do a little more covering. The Mike gets to stay in the box, hold it down inside.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said Mauga has fared well in the role.
“I think particularly, these last three or four weeks, he’s played at a really consistent level and performed very well,” Sutton said. “He has complete command of what we’re doing out there and can move anybody around and understands the whole defense. It’s a big plus for us.”
The time Mauga spent last year as the Chiefs' primary inside linebacker in Johnson's absence from an Achilles injury contributed to that knowledge. Mauga, who racked up 103 tackles in 16 games last season, spent a majority of that season with the one defensive helmet with the microphone, which allowed him to communicate with his coaches on the field.
“You’re the voice that’s out on the field and I think that’s helped him,” Sutton said. “And all of the things you do eventually have to come down to ‘Are you doing things in a way that people are going to respond?’
“I think Josh has the respect of the guys.”
Mauga has seen his reps go down some this year, largely because of Johnson's return; he no longer has to patrol the middle in nickel and dime subpackages. Coverage is more of Johnson's strength, and Sutton often prefers to swap out the other inside linebacker for a safety in those situations.
Still, the Chiefs know Mauga ― who has two interceptions this year ― can do it if necessary, thanks to a 2014 season that not only helped him a three-year, $8 million extension last offseason, but also helped him stave off 2015 fourth-round rookie Ramik Wilson this season.
Wilson actually led the team in tackles this preseason while Mauga missed most of camp with a heel injury, but went back to the bench when Mauga was declared healthy enough to start the season opener against Houston.
At the time, Sutton mentioned that Mauga was 800 snaps ahead of Wilson in the defense, which obviously made a difference ― considering he likes both players.
“I think he demonstrated to us (last year) that he can be a winning football player for you,” Sutton said of Mauga. “So to me, his consistency, the fact that he didn’t have to leave the field (last year) was real positive. I thought he did a great job a year ago, and he’s continued on (that path) this season.”
Mauga, for his part, is just grateful to be able to contribute. Injuries threatened the 28-year-old's professional career prior to joining the Chiefs ― he had two of his first four seasons wiped out ― but after a preseason heel injury and a pair of injuries (Achilles and back) that caused him to miss two games midseason, he says he feels like himself again on the field.
“Definitely being healthy, I do feel like I’m playing a lot better,” Mauga said. “It feels good. I’m not out there aching. And having D.J. out there playing next to me makes it a lot easier, too. It takes a huge load off my back.”
But don't think for a second Mauga doesn't take some pride in being part of a run defense that has turned it around after being far too leaky last year.
“Absolutely,” Mauga said. “Last year, kinda listening to all that (talk about us) not having D.J. there and me being in there (and) that we couldn’t stop the run, I kind of took that as an offense.
“I put a lot of myself, I put that on me ... I can’t have that, I can’t be out there being the one letting the team down. So this year, we definitely made improvements to stop the run.”