The Arizona Cardinals had moved to the Chiefs’ 1 on their opening possession of Saturday’s preseason opener, and to this point little had gone right for the visitors.
But on second down, running back Andre Ellington no sooner took the handoff when a defender had crashed through, got enough of his arms through Ellington’s legs to drop the running back in his tracks for a loss.
Derrick Johnson was back.
“Man, did it feel great,” Johnson said.
On a night when the Chiefs and NFL celebrated the return safety Eric Berry to game action after his triumphant battle with Hodgkins lymphoma, two other defensive starters made their comeback from a lost 2014 season in Saturday’s 34-19 victory over the Cardinals.
The long journey back for Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito was over. They started, put in their two series’ worth of snaps and cheered for their teammates on the second and third teams for the rest of the evening.
The pair connected by a devastating coincidence, torn Achilles in the regular-season opener, felt renewed.
“You don’t realize how much you love it until you don’t have it,” DeVito said. “I don’t want to take a down or a second out here for granted because I know how quickly it could be gone.
The Chiefs run defense felt their absence, falling from 13th in 2013 to 28th last season, partly because they missed plays like the one Johnson made on Ellington.
Johnson, who will turn 33 in November, and the 31-year-old DeVito have had productive careers, and season-ending injuries at this stage could have prompted retirement thoughts. Instead, they became rehabilitation buddies, pushing each other throughout the difficult process.
“We really built a strong bond,” DeVito said. “It’s going out there and playing with your brother.”
On Saturday, DeVito was credited with one tackle, Johnson two. They combined for a stop on the Cardinals’ first snap of their second possession, after an Alex Smith interception set up Arizona at the Chiefs 18. The Cardinals didn’t collect a first down and settled for a field goal on the drive.
“Hopefully we can get that picture framed up,” DeVito said.
Johnson and DeVito took part in team activities starting in the spring, but nothing simulates the speed and action of facing a different colored jersey.
“OTAs are one thing, training camp is one thing, but this was for real,” DeVito said.
One of the best things about Saturday according to DeVito? “Not having to watching it on TV.”
The return will continue to be a process. Early in the game, Johnson noticed the impact of the layoff.
“I knew the game was going to be a little faster early,” Johnson said. “But with every play I got more comfortable. I picked it back up pretty quick. I expect the next game to be better and the one after that even better.”
Johnson would have been the Chiefs’ career tackle leader by now if he had remained healthy last season. Once the regular season begins, he needs 15 more stops to pass Gary Spani.
But first things first. The comeback trail includes three more preseason games, and Johnson understands the importance of each of those.
“I need these games,” he said. “Whether I had a good job or a bad job (Saturday), I need to get more games under my belt to be fully prepared.”