Ramik Wilson and Justin March leaned in close, listening to the leader at their position — star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson — scream and shout as approximately 80 players circled him.
It was Saturday, only 15 minutes or so until the start of the Chiefs’ 23-7 exhibition win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell this was a meaningless game, given the passion with which Johnson — a 12-year veteran — spoke.
From rows and rows away, fans could see Johnson shouting at his teammates and pumping his fist. This game would not count in the standings, but as the Chiefs’ third exhibition — starters typically sit in the fourth — it would be their last real tuneup before the season opener against the San Diego Chargers on Sept. 11.
The gist of the message, according to Johnson’s two second-year understudies, was simple: It was time for the Chiefs, particularly the defense, to do two things it had been doing during camp, but not necessarily in the first two exhibition games — let their personality show and finally lock down the opponent’s running game.
“It made us realize the season is upon us,” March said. “We can’t afford to go out there and make little mistakes anymore. He reminded us of our end goal, getting the trophy.”
And suffice it to say, Johnson and the rest of the Chiefs’ first-stringers played like it. The offense continued to purr, and the defense finally performed to its capabilities, limiting a physical Bears team to only 27 yards in nine carries as the Chiefs’ starters outdueled the Bears’ starters 13-0 in the first half.
It was a welcome change for the Chiefs, given the fact their first-string defense surrendered a combined 141 yards in 25 carries in previous exhibitions against the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams. That’s a subpar average of 5.6 yards per carry, which looks even worse when you consider the worst run-stopping team in the NFL — the New Orleans Saints — allowed 4.9 yards per carry last season.
And while the Chiefs have been missing a triumvirate of Pro Bowl, run-stopping defenders in safety Eric Berry, outside linebacker Justin Houston and outside linebacker Tamba Hali, you could tell following the Rams game a week ago that it bothered them. Johnson said afterward that they were allowing runs that typically go for 2 or 3 yards to go for 5 and 6, and noted that there was a sense of urgency to fix it.
The veteran Johnson certainly proved that Saturday, playing with every bit as much fire as he displayed during the pregame warmups. He chased down ball carriers, got upset with missed tackles and shot gaps with gusto, as if it were the Super Bowl instead of a meaningless game.
“We’re a little young right now, and we need that leadership,” Wilson said. “He’s doing a great job setting the tempo, making the plays, and getting everybody fired up. D.J. is D.J. — he’s going to keep doing that.”
Between Johnson — who led the first-stringers with four tackles — and the Chiefs’ deep, quick and powerful defensive line, the Bears’ top running back, Jeremy Langford, found little daylight. He rushed six times for only 17 yards as the Chiefs solved the run-technique issues that had been plaguing them in previous games.
“I thought the front seven did a good job,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I thought the line and the linebackers were flying around, right from the start. I know the (Bears) are banged up a little bit, but (Chicago coach) John (Fox) always has these physical, tough, hard-nosed guys, so to be able to do what the defense did the first half, that was a plus.”
And with the running game corralled, quarterback Jay Cutler had little chance as the same defensive front harassed him the entire half. Johnson and Dontari Poe each recorded sacks, while rookie defensive lineman Chris Jones — who has essentially been unblockable this preseason due to his combination of length, power and quickness — knocked down a pass and routinely collapsed the pocket.
Cutler finished the half 2 of 7 for 11 yards, and the Bears actually finished with minus-9 passing yards due to the sacks.
The Bears’ inability to control the ball — they lost the first-half time of possession battle approximately 22 minutes to 8 — allowed the Chiefs to get a terrific look at their first-team offense, which continued its strong preseason run on Saturday. The only negative was its inability to score a touchdown on its first drive for the first time all preseason. After that opening drive, which stalled out at the 42-yard line, the Chiefs scored on three of their next four drives, thanks in large part to the accurate passing of quarterback Alex Smith, who completed 20 of 30 passes for 181 yards.
Smith spread the ball around, completing passes to eight different receivers, led by the usual suspects in No. 1 receiver Jeremy Maclin (five catches for 44 yards), tight end Travis Kelce (three for 37) and a surprise candidate in running back Spencer Ware (four for 26). Smith also hurt the Bears with his legs, rushing twice for 25 yards.
The Chiefs, who improved to 1-2 this preseason, even ended the half the right way. After being forced to settle for field goals on two drives, Smith put together an 11-play, 70-yard scoring march that was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Ware that put the Chiefs ahead 13-0 just before halftime.
It was at that point that Reid, who said Thursday that he might let the starters play three quarters this week, decided he’d seen enough, and he subbed in the second-teamers to start the third quarter.
The offense had been humming — Smith finished the preseason 32 for 46 for 354 yards and a touchdown, while the offense boasted a 4.4 yards-per-carry average on Saturday — and the defense had, at least for one game, corrected its most glaring issue. And with the most of the starters likely to sit in Thursday’s preseason finale against Green Bay, which has been Reid’s M.O. since arriving in Kansas City, the decision to remove them all made sense.
By doing so, Reid ensured things would end for his starters on a good note, one that he and Chiefs fans can only hope will carry over to the season opener against the Chargers.
“They had almost 50 plays in the first half, so I just thought it was good enough,” Reid said. “The defense, I think, is ready to roll.”