Red Zone

Ask Terez: Why the Chiefs picked Justin March-Lillard over Jamaal Charles

Waiting game with Justin March-Lillard

Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton addressed the possible playing time for linebacker Justin March-Lillard.
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Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton addressed the possible playing time for linebacker Justin March-Lillard.

From now on, I’ll try to answer some of the most common questions I get asked here so everyone can see the answer.

On Wednesday, I addressed Tyreek Hill and whether he could handle a larger running back load.

And today, with the Chiefs’ recent decision to designate Justin March-Lillard to return from injured reserve over Jamaal Charles, I’ll address some of the reasons the Chiefs might have made that decision.

Simple. If it’s 2013 Jamaal Charles — the guy who racked up nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards, scored 19 touchdowns and was one of the finest all-around weapons the game has ever seen — you take him, hands down, every single time. Obviously.

Heck, if it was 2014 Jamaal Charles — who recorded about 600 fewer all-purpose yards behind a below-average line but still scored 14 touchdowns — you’d take that version, too.

But 2016 Jamaal Charles, coming off surgeries to both knees in November? March-Lillard is the choice, because the Chiefs desperately need some help to aid the league’s 28th-ranked run defense, which got gashed for 5.1 yards per carry in a 19-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

The Chiefs’ run defense struggled Sunday due to some misalignments — guys lined up in the wrong spots — against the league’s third-ranked run offense. The Titans’ rushing attack is a throwback one, built on downhill football and multiple tight ends. In another words, it was tailor-made to attack a defense weakened following a season-ending injury to star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson.

March-Lillard is only a second-year pro, but he’s a smart player with really good instincts. He sees plays happening quickly — he’s got good eyes for the position — and has consistently displayed a knack for the big play in the practices I got to watch, though that trait didn’t really shine through in the five starts he made this year before he went on injured reserve because of a broken bone in his hand.

March-Lillard also struggled some with his gap fits before his injury, but I think part of that had to do with the fact he was playing “mike” linebacker, the position next to Johnson’s, instead of “will” linebacker, the position where he shined in preseason practices for the last two years. The “will” — or weak-side — inside linebacker in the Chiefs’ 3-4 scheme is allowed to run a chase a little more than the “mike,” who has to call out plays, take on blocks and help keep the “will” clean.

At 6 feet and about 240 pounds, March-Lillard fits the profile of a weakside inside ’backer better and, in my opinion, could have the eyes and athleticism to give the Chiefs at least some of what Johnson did, which will be necessary if they want to make a Super Bowl run.

This is not an indictment of Johnson’s replacement on Sunday, D.J. Alexander. Granted, he did not play well — he was Pro Football Focus’ lowest-graded Chief on Sunday, and the Titans attacked him repeatedly.

But Alexander has very good athleticism and is already a supremely-valuable special-teams player; he just needs to keep training his eyes as a defender. That takes time and reps, as he’d logged all of six defensive snaps all year prior to Sunday’s game. Again, he might get there one day; I’m told he was hard on himself after Sunday’s game, which is a positive sign, because it speaks to his competitiveness. But it’s Week 16, the archrival Denver Broncos are coming into town, and the Chiefs, who are looking to clinch a playoff spot, don’t have time to let him take his lumps.

Finally, back to Charles. Even though the Chiefs’ decision effectively ends his 2016 season (and perhaps his career here), I’d caution folks to not count him out. I know a guy who loves football when I see one, and there’s no doubt Jamaal Charles does. This matters when it comes to rehabbing injuries like his, because it’s a long, painful process and it can wear on you mentally. You have to know, deep down in your heart, that the pain and stress of rehab will be worth it.

Just look at Derrick Johnson, who bounced back from a torn Achilles to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player once again at age 33 (even though he was absolutely snubbed last year, and I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise). Johnson tore his other Achilles a few weeks ago, but fewer than 24 hours later he was not only pledging to be back next year, but to play out the final year of his contract — in 2018! — too. Derrick Johnson loves football. Don’t bet against him, folks.

But again, when it comes to Charles, there has always been some optimism around the team about his ability to become an effective player again. It might not be in Kansas City in 2017 (the Chiefs can clear $7 million off the cap by releasing him), but if there’s a way Charles can play in 2017, he will — provided he wants to. It’s all up to him, not to mention his surgically-repaired knees.