Shortly before Chiefs coach Andy Reid announced Justin Houston’s looming absence against the Oakland Raiders, linebacker Derrick Johnson made sure he sought out and teased Houston’s replacement, second-year linebacker Dee Ford, during practice.
“I kept saying, ‘Dee Ford’s making his debut, Dee Ford’s making his debut,’” said Johnson, an 11-year veteran. “He was just laughing. I was trying to amp him up.”
Turns out Ford doesn’t need it.
“He’s excited,” Johnson said. “You can tell.”
Ford is often demonstrative during interviews — he’s never had a problem expressing himself, even dating back to his days as a college star at Auburn — and on Thursday, he grinned when asked about making his first professional start on Sunday against the Raiders.
“The opportunity is there now, and I don’t want to put too much emphasis on one game, but I’m excited,” Ford said. “I’m not going to lie to you. I’m very excited.”
The Chiefs should be, too. Since he was selected with the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Ford has been blocked at his position — outside linebacker — by two bonafide veteran stars in Houston and Tamba Hali.
As a rookie last season, Ford recorded only eight tackles and 1 1/2 sacks while playing roughly 9 percent of the Chiefs’ total defensive snaps. Still, he would have been penciled in as a starter had the Chiefs chosen to move on from Hali, who had a cap number of $12 million. But Hali agreed to a pay cut this offseason, and Ford — who is still making the transition from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker — again found his path to a starter’s reps blocked.
Ford has played more this year — or at least he did through the first nine games, when he recorded nine tackles. But a pregame back injury against the Chargers a few weeks ago caused him to miss the Chiefs’ next two games, including their 30-22 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Ford could have been useful in the Chiefs’ win over Buffalo — Houston suffered a knee strain in the first half and did not return — but he’s been practicing since Wednesday, when Reid made it clear he’s the next man up at outside linebacker.
“Listen, I think we all have confidence in Dee — he’s had some good snaps for us this year, so I think he looks forward to the opportunity of playing and having a chance to start,” Reid said. “I think that’s a big thing to him and we’ll see how he does.”
To be clear, expectations are high.
“You have to perform — you’re the starting player, the team on the field is the team,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Our expectation is he’s going to play well.”
So is Ford’s.
“You have to prepare as if you’re going to play in the game,” he said, “and this year, in particular, I’ve played a lot more than I’ve played last year, and that’s because I’ve prepared and practiced like a starter — for moments like this.”
Ford believes he has progressed. One of his weak spots as a rookie was setting the edge, but when asked this week about the feedback he has received from his coaches this year, he indicated that he’s been getting the job done against the run.
“Well, I wouldn’t say I’m getting feedback because that’s the expectation — that’s one thing you’re going to have to do to play outside linebacker here,” Ford said. “If there was feedback, there’s be a problem, more of a situation where they say, ‘(Oh), you need to get this done.’ ”
And while he hasn’t recorded any sacks this year, Ford is confident that more playing time will allow him to get in a rhythm and set up his various pass-rush moves. During his college career, he showed the ability to make big sacks at the end of games.
“(More snaps help) a lot, especially as a rusher, when you want to set up different moves that you want to do,” Ford said. “We talk about this a lot: You want to be able to set up your counter moves and then set up what you do — your signature move. And it’s hard to do that when you’re in the game sporadically.”
Ford’s signature move is the speed rush, and his teammates maintain it’s a good one. He’s usually one of the first defenders off the ball in passing situations, which gives Johnson confidence that the former first-round pick is ready to show what he can do.
“It’s not going to be perfect on Sunday, but he’s going to make a couple plays where I know the Raiders are going to say ‘Wow, OK,’ ” Johnson said. “They’ll go on the sideline and say, ‘We need to look out for this.’ ”
Especially against the pass.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes into football, mentally, so he’s got all that stuff he has to do well on Sunday,” Johnson said. “But (as) a pure pass rusher, I mean, you can ask Justin and those guys … him getting off the ball (is impressive).”