When James-Michael Johnson approached fellow inside linebacker Derrick Johnson following the Chiefs’ loss to the Titans on Sunday, he told him he’d pray for him.
“Him and (Mike) DeVito,” James-Michael Johnson said.
And when Dontari Poe saw DeVito, his buddy along the defensive line, laying on the Arrowhead Stadium turf Sunday with the same ruptured Achilles injury that Derrick Johnson suffered one quarter before, he said the same thing.
“I was praying for him,” Poe said
In between the coachspeak — and there were certainly a ton of “next man up” refrains from the Chiefs that remained in a quiet locker room— this was a common sentiment among their teammates as they solemnly tried to describe the emotional impact of losing two of their best defenders to the same serious injury.
Especially when Johnson was only 15 tackles away from breaking Gary Spani’s record for the most tackles in Chiefs history (999).
“He’s been through the coaching changes, he’s been through all the ups and downs, and he’s stayed true to the game,” Chiefs safety Eric Berry said. “He’s never backed down, regardless of what our record was, regardless of everything that was going on outside of football. He always came and brought his ’A’ game. I think he was a good image of what everybody should be like on this team.
“It’s a freaky day, you know?”
But the loss of Johnson and DeVito could hurt more than the Chiefs’ psyche, however. Both are integral parts of their run defense, and the stats Sunday bore it out.
The Titans rushed 10 times for 26 yards before Johnson got hurt, an average of 2.6 yards per carry. After he got hurt, they rushed 28 times for 136 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per carry — nearly twice as high.
Last season, DeVito ranked as the fourth-best run defender among the 45 qualifying 3-4 defensive ends who logged at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, while Johnson’s run-defense grade ranked 18th among the 55 qualifying 3-4 linebackers.
“I mean, it’s not a secret,” Poe said. They’ve been good players for us since they’ve been here. They’re important for us in every aspect of our defense.”
DeVito, by the way, only got hurt six running plays later than Johnson did.
“DeVito means just as much to this defense, especially in the run game and just his presence, period, in the locker room everyday,” Berry said.
While the 6-foot-3, 242-pound Johnson is a master at using his speed to shoot through gaps, avoid linemen and tackle ball carriers, DeVito — who is listed at 6 feet 3 and 305 pounds — uses his brute strength and smarts to occupy offensive linemen, which allows linebackers like Johnson to roam free.
“He’s able to see backfield sets and know where the blocks are coming from before they happen,” defensive end Jaye Howard said. “When you’re eight years in, you’ll be able to do those things.”
Poe added that DeVito’s intelligence and vocal leadership in the trenches is crucial.
“He’s real smart,” Poe said. “He gives a lot of calls.”
But as much as the Chiefs expressed concern over their injured comrades, they also made it clear that their focus is filling the void their absences will cause.
In Johnson’s case, that duty will likely fall to James-Michael Johnson, who had three tackles on Sunday.
“I have to be able to pick up where D.J. left off,” James-Michael Johnson said. “Wherever they need me to play, I’ve got to be perfect.
“I’ve learned a lot from D.J. … He is the best linebacker I’ve ever played with.”
In DeVito’s case, that duty will fall to defensive ends Jaye Howard or Vance Walker.
“The good thing is we’ve all practice at each of the positions for the most part,” Walker said. “You just have to be positive. He’s a great player, but this is what we prepare for. We’ve got the two deep. I don’t have a doubt in my mind that Jaye can step up and do the same thing.”
To be honest, if the Chiefs truly plan on backing up their “next man up” philosophy, they really don’t have a choice.
“Somebody’s got to step up,” Walker said. “There’s really nothing else to say.”