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Kansas City Chiefs miss Derrick Johnson now as much as ever

Let's just put this out there: The Chiefs miss Derrick Johnson. A lot.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes it's just not your day.

Like Sunday.

I'm not all about 'dem Xs and Os today (still waiting on all-22 film as of this writing, and it might be too depressing anyway). But one thing I can tell you without reviewing any film is EXACTLY when I was pretty sure the Chiefs weren't going to come back and win against the Broncos, and EXACTLY when that "pretty sure" became "Yeah, it's not happening today."

The first moment came with 7:23 left in the third quarter. Alex Smith looked to hit Dwayne Bowe (it appears), and Terrance Knighton (who I'm not fond of but who is a tremendous player) got his pot-roasty hand in the way.

Deflected passes are normally pretty blech, but they aren't a killer. This is particularly true on first down. The Chiefs had the momentum after stopping Denver's offense twice in a row and narrowing the lead to 10 (that sentence, upon re-reading, made me super sad), and the offense had a few more downs to try and pick up the pieces and do SOMETHING.

Of course, instead of falling harmlessly to the ground, the ball drifted right into the hands of DeMarcus Ware. And I proceeded to hate everything.

The Chiefs defense kept fighting, though. They forced a field goal despite an impossible situation, then (after a three-and-out in which the Chiefs went with the read option out of shotgun on 3rd and 1) forced the Broncos into a three-and-out of their own. Denver was kicking to the Chiefs up two scores, and the offense was going to have GREAT field position.

Even better, Baby Colquitt completely shanked the punt and ...

Now every team in the NFL is going to run on the Chiefs until they show they can stop it. Frankly, without DJ, I'm not sure it's in the cards.

Seriously, I'm not going to type out the rest. You saw it. You screamed. You cried. You gasped in disbelief.

That was the moment. When the ball grazed Marcus Cooper's leg and then bounced PERFECTLY into the arms of a Bronco (who had been out of bounds and should've been penalized, but whatever), I knew.

It just wasn't the night for the Chiefs. Which brings me to Derrick Johnson.

I don't like thinking about DJ. When he went down in Week 1, it was an unbelievably low point for the Chiefs. They were in the middle of an awful performance against a terrible team (that trounced them), and DJ is ... well, he's DJ.

For all the talk about Dontari Poe, Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, and Eric Berry (all very, very, very good players), DJ is and always has been the heart of the Chiefs defense, particularly the run defense.

After DJ went down, we all assumed (naturally) the Chiefs were done in the run defense department, especially with Mike DeVito (arguably the best pure run defender on the defensive line) went down along with him. We envisioned a world in which teams ran at will on the Chiefs and ground them into submission.

After half a season went by, those dire predictions had yet to come to fruition. In fact, the Chiefs had managed to field one of the best defenses in the NFL by multiple stats (including scoring, the most important stat). Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers ... no one had been able to light the Chiefs up through the air. And so we started to hope that the Chiefs dirty little secret of run defense might not be THAT big a deal. After all, it's 2014. No one tries to run the ball anymore anyway.

Then the last two weeks happened.

Make no mistake, the Broncos did not beat the Chiefs because they have Peyton Manning and the Chiefs don't. While Manning had a pair of impressive drives early, he was positively mediocre most of the day Sunday, missing throws we've all seen him make a thousand times. Frankly, he looked old. No, I'm not kidding one bit.

The problem was that it didn't matter, as C.J. Anderson rushed around and through the Chiefs for 403 yards, give or take a yard or two.

When a player has THAT good of a day against your defense, there are multiple people to blame (players and coaches alike). However, if you want to know what's going on with the run defense, you only have to watch the first couple snaps Denver had on offense. Here's their second play from scrimmage.


I'm not even going to get into the issue of down and distance. All you need to know is "eight men in the box." As in, the Chiefs are in their base 3-4 defense (which is supposed to be stronger against the run than subsets) AND have brought Husain Abdullah (No. 3 in the picture) to play as an extra linebacker. JMJ is right on the line, with Josh Mauga as the "other" ILB.

Obviously, the Chiefs are expecting a run. And the Broncos have seven men available to block. Watch how this play progresses, keeping an eye on Mauga.




I'm not trying to turn this into a film study, so I'll keep it as simple as possible.

At the snap, JMJ (No. 2 in initial picture) gets absolutely inhaled by No. 78. I mean just BURIED and pushed backward. I guess you can call that taking on a block if you want to be optimistic, but getting driven back and creating two lanes around you isn't really a plus. He's out of commission for the entirety of the play. That's strike one against the Chiefs ILBs. Holding ground even a little there makes the hole smaller.

In the meantime, Tamba Hali does a good job setting the edge. I don't know if the run called initially for Anderson to go around the left tackle, but with Tamba in solid position that's not going to happen without running backward. Fair enough, decent job by Tamba.

Jaye Howard does a good job getting free, though he's too far from the play to help. On the plus side, he would have inhaled any cutback, so good on him for beating his blocker.

Poe is singled up and strings his man along, covering the gap to his right. Unfortunately, Allen Bailey is also filling that gap with an inside move the left guard uses to his advantage. While Bailey gets some initial separation and looks like he came THIS CLOSE to making a good play, the left guard is smart enough to reposition himself and wall off Bailey before he can do any damage.

Which, as you can see in the second of the three pictures of the play, leaves two gaps (around an inhaled JMJ) that need to be covered. Abdullah chooses (correctly) to cover the outside gap.

That leaves a lone gap and Josh Mauga in space against the center, whose job it clearly is to take Mauga out of the play. The good news is Mauga does a decent enough job in space to cut under the center and avoid much of a block. In fact, if you look at an all-22 look of Anderson about to hit the hole, it seems like this run is about to be stopped with minimal gain.


All Mauga has to do is meet Anderson at the gap and it's a minimal gain. Or, at the very least, he meets Anderson a couple yards past the line of scrimmage and it's a well-crap-that-stinks-but-isn't-so-bad first down run of five yards or so.

Instead, Mauga can't get there on time and Anderson scampers for a full 10 yards before taking a real hit (Mauga lays an arm on him).

Look, I'm not here to go REALLY in-depth about Josh Mauga and JMJ. I've been clear how I feel about both (Mauga has potential but isn't ready. JMJ has been up and down). But this isn't really about them, necessarily. It's about who ISN'T out there.

I want you to use your imagination for a moment and pull Mauga off that play and put Derrick Johnson in. So now, Derrick Johnson is alone in space against a center with one gap to fill.

DJ makes that play nine out of 10 times, if not more like 19 out of 20. And we wouldn't really recognize it as a great play because, well, it would look pretty routine.Because DJ was fast enough in space to make a relatively tough play look routine. That's what he did. Again, I'm not killing Mauga, because it's not a simple play to make to beat the blocker then fill the gap, especially with JMJ getting buried. Additionally, Andy Reid has mentioned that Mauga is battling back spasms. So he could be playing hurt. But he's just not DJ, or close.

The Chiefs defense, until that first Titans game, had a guy in the middle who guaranteed 2-3 "holy crap" stops a game, and guaranteed us another half dozen tackles for 3-4 yard gains that other players would've allowed to be 5-6 yard gains (or more). And he's gone.

Let's circle back to the shanked punt. Remember what I said at the beginning of all this? Sometimes it's just not your day. Sometimes the outcome is a bit of a foregone conclusion. That shanked punt was the sign for me against Denver on Sunday.

And right now, I'm starting to feel like that "it's not your day" moment for the entire 2014 season might have happened way back in September, when the heart of the Chiefs run defense was carted off the field. I hope I'm wrong, but the last few weeks have brought back memories of the 49ers bleeding the clock out in the second half with run after run that our defense couldn't stop.

Now every team in the NFL is going to run on the Chiefs until they show they can stop it. Frankly, without DJ, I'm not sure it's in the cards. Injuries happen every year to great players, and sometimes teams can overcome those injuries with a next man up attitude and proper scheming. I very much fear that this year, with this Chiefs team, that's not going to be the case.

I hope in a month I'm looking back at this and laughing as the Chiefs prepare for the playoffs. But right now, it's tough to watch a DJ-less run defense and not feel that shanked punt feeling.

It's Game Time.

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