Lineback­ers a strength for Chiefs

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NFL / MOTOR SPORTS - Kansas City Chiefs

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Justin Hous­ton was a bit late to prac­tice over the week­end be­cause he had to take one of the league’s ran­dom drug tests, and the star line­backer wasn’t told about it un­til he’d just gone to the bath­room.

His ab­sence still caused quite a stir on so­cial me­dia.

If noth­ing else, the hu­mor­ous episode showed just how closely watched the line­backer po­si­tion will be in Kansas City this sea­son.

The group an­chored by Hous­ton, vet­eran stal­wart Derrick John­son and break­out pass rusher Dee Ford could be one of the best in the league if ev­ery­one stays healthy, and could hold the key to whether the Chiefs have a defense that can carry them deep into the post­sea­son.

“This year we are healthy. The main guys are healthy from the start,” Hous­ton said. “Last year from the start we didn’t have ev­ery­body. This year we have ev­ery­body from the start, and if we can just keep ev­ery­body healthy I think we def­i­nitely can make a lot of noise.”

The Chiefs of­ten strug­gled to pres­sure the quar­ter­back and stop the run last sea­son, and that was a di­rect re­sult of the dif­fi­culty they had in find­ing able bodies at line­backer.

Hous­ton strug­gled with a knee in­jury for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive sea­son. John­son rup­tured his Achilles ten­don in De­cem­ber. Tamba Hali, 33, has be­come a part-time player thanks to his age and in­juries. And backup line­backer Josh Mauga went on in­jured re­serve in train­ing camp.

The shuf­fling of re­place­ments dragged down the en­tire unit. The Chiefs only piled up 28 sacks af­ter get­ting 47 the pre­vi­ous sea­son, and that cre­ated prob­lems else­where on the defense.

Now, it ap­pears the Chiefs’ line­backer group is the health­i­est it’s been in quite a while.

Hous­ton is run­ning with the first-team defense in 11-on-11 pe­ri­ods in train­ing camp, and John­son is al­ready back to full speed af­ter his knee surgery. Hali is on the phys­i­cally un­able-to-per­form list, though that was ex­pected as the Chiefs try to keep him fresh for the reg­u­lar sea­son.

“I’ve had some good luck and I want to keep it go­ing,” said John­son, the fran­chise’s ca­reer tack­les leader, who also rup­tured his other Achilles ten­don a cou­ple of years ago.

“It’s 71/2 months re­moved from surgery, so it’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent,” John­son said. “It’s good to get out here and knock off the cob­webs and get my feet wet. Men­tally I’m al­most there all the way al­ready, but phys­i­cally I’ll get a lit­tle faster dur­ing camp.”

Hali also said he’s “way ahead of the ball­game.”

“Last year around this time, I could barely run. It took a while for me to re­gain my strength,” he said. “As far as where I am to­day, I can run. I can do the things that I was do­ing be­fore the year. I feel much health­ier.

“It’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent be­cause of my age and the amount of snaps I’ve got­ten. But again, that doesn’t play in my mind, just be­cause I am a com­peti­tor.”

De­spite their core of vet­er­ans, the Chiefs are be­ing prag­matic about the line­backer po­si­tion. They saw how in­juries mounted last sea­son and quickly learned the value of depth across the board.

That’s why they signed Mauga as a free agent, and traded special teams ace D.J. Alexan­der to the Seat­tle Sea­hawks for line­backer Kevin Pierre-Louis last week.

It’s why they grabbed Re­shard Cli­ett off waivers from the Ti­tans and drafted Ukeme Eligwe in the fifth round out of Ge­or­gia South­ern.

Throw in holdovers such as Justin March-Lil­lard, Ramik Wil­son and Ter­rance Smith and there are plenty of bodies in train­ing camp, each com­pet­ing for play­ing time in what could be a stacked unit.

“Ob­vi­ously, we missed Justin for quite a while,” Chiefs de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Bob Sut­ton said af­ter prac­tice Mon­day. “Ob­vi­ously, he is a re­ally good rusher. We had some nicks and knacks with in­juries and that, but that’s kind of the NFL. It’s what ev­ery­body goes through.”

It’s also what prompted Chiefs Coach Andy Reid to state the ob­vi­ous: “We want to keep build­ing the depth in that po­si­tion.”

And if ev­ery­one stays healthy? Even bet­ter.

“We have a big win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for us,” Ford said. “You don’t want to think ahead, but you still want to think about that. We’ve been to the sec­ond round [of the play­offs] and then last year we had the first-round bye.

“We want to get to big plans. We’re def­i­nitely com­ing into this year, chop­ping wood each day, but also think­ing of where we’re try­ing to end up.”

AP/JES­SICA A. STEW­ART

line­backer Justin Hous­ton (left) meets with fans Fri­day af­ter­noon at the team’s train­ing camp in St. Joseph, Mo. Hous­ton, who strug­gled with a knee in­jury for a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive sea­son, had four sacks in five games last sea­son.

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