It's hard to argue with the performances of the linebacking corps in this 3-4 defense after last season. Let's discuss how well they have kept it going at this juncture in the 2012 season.
Even the casual Chiefs fan would say that the linebacking corps was a strength after last season. With Pro Bowl nods to Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, as well as the development of rookie LB Justin Houston, you couldn't argue that this defense gets its big plays from the 4 in the back of the front seven. Jovan Belcher had an up and down year last year, but did what he was asked well enough to create opportunities for DJ to make the big plays.
The starting four were pretty set going into this season, and with Brandon Siler coming off of an injury, new acquisition Edgar Jones, and Mike Vrabel-taught Andy Studebaker, it looked like the Chiefs not only had a pretty good set of starters, but they had some depth.
Tamba Hali started off the season with a 1-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy. After coming back, he started a little slow, but has picked up the pace to notch 4 sacks. He's still getting behind the line and causing plenty of problems as one of the league's best pass rushers, but at this point in the season, he hasn't had the same number of quarterback hits/pressures as Chiefs fans are used to seeing out of him from previous seasons. Still, 4 sacks in five games is nothing to complain about. He's been stellar in backside run support, but still can find himself caught out of position on runs to his side of the field.
DJ also found himself starting the season off slow, having many Chiefs fans asking what it is that is going wrong with him. He seemed caught between two minds, not letting himself read and react the same way that we have grown accustomed to him playing. He's definitely turned in on in recent weeks, though. He's exhibited the "DJ Special" by frequently shooting the gap and blowing up the play behind the line of scrimmage for a loss, and his coverage has been back to its normal high level.
Justin Houston has been a freakin' monster. 6 sacks, 3 PBU's, 1 INT, 1 safety, a couple tackles for loss, and countless pressures in six games. Those are fantastic numbers by themselves, but when you couple the fact that he's dropping into pass coverage just as much (or more) as he's rushing the passer, you're seeing the development of one of the more complete OLB's in the NFL. He's fantastic against the run, solid in coverage, and an unstoppable force when rushing the passer. Let's put it this way: Clay Matthews was anointed the best OLB in the league after the 2010 season with 13.5 sacks, 4 PBU's, and 1 INT. Houston is on pace to crush those numbers. Then again, Matthews is making his case for that title again this year...
Jovan Belcher has been a bit of a roller coaster in recent years. I have said that he can be a suitable player if he commits to do what he's asked, and play within his abilities. He's done that so far this year. He's done more than the usual "absorb blockers" that he had done in previous years, now making some plays behind the line of scrimmage. Romeo has also entrusted him with some pass coverage duties, at which he has performed average. There's no question that he's the weakest of these four, but he's doing a great job of doing what he's asked to do under Romeo.
First and foremost, Justin Houston has been a highlight reel. DJ's turned in a ton of quality stops, and we've seen the Tambahawk celebration a few times this year.
It all starts with the New Orleans game, and the safety that turned the tides. At that moment, the defense pulled together and stepped their game up, making stops, deflecting passes, and putting the offense in good positions for the next two games.
The rest of the season has been plagued by singular poor plays that put points on the board. Missed tackles, poor coverage in the middle of the field, and getting washed out of the run game have shown up at least a couple times in each of the blowout losses. The linebackers haven't performed badly for 95% of the snaps, but the other 5% has been incredibly costly.
It's hard to argue with the quality on the field at the LB position for the Chiefs. With two Pro-Bowlers last year and (calling it) one in Houston this year, it's full of talent. Mental mistakes happen to any team, but with the lack of points on the board from the Chiefs offense, they stick out like sore thumbs.
Chiefs fans can't help but be excited for these guys. They're the ones that get us up out of our seats in excitement, and the ones that turn the tides when things aren't going well. It's hard not to think that these guys aren't in the upper echelons in the league already this season, so it'll be fun to watch them try to finish it out with authority.
What do you guys think? Do the Chiefs have a pro bowler in this linebacking corps? Can they do enough throughout the season to right the ship?