KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Here’s the reality on the Chiefs run defense: Derrick Johnson was the key to their run over the years.
He was the deficiency eraser.
He could read and react instantaneously.
He had the ability to beat and dodge blockers for insane pursuit angles to the ball carrier.
Johnson controlled the run from tackle to tackle each season he was healthy.
The team was at their best when Mike DeVito commanded the right side. A healthy Justin Houston controlled the left side. Dontari Poe had the middle. Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey could dominate their one-on-ones.
And there was Derrick Johnson in the middle to roam free and control anything that got by the first level with his athletic ability. That is why the 2013 and 2015 Chiefs run defenses were tough to get yardage on in base. They had a strong defensive line and a insanely athletic inside linebacker.
When Johnson was hurt, the run defense would struggle. In 2014, 2016, 2017 and now in 2018, Johnson's absence is noticeable.
Teams could turn the defensive line with double teams and go second level to the inside backers. Sutton tried a safety in sub-package during 2014 to limited success. DJ Alexander, Ramik Wilson and Terrance Smith struggled getting off blocks after Johnson’s second Achilles injury.
In 2017, Johnson no longer had his lateral speed. Bennie Logan struggled and KC lacked stout defensive linemen to maintain the line of scrimmage.
The Chiefs don’t have the next wave of a stout Mike DeVito and Justin Houston destroying the edges. They aren’t ready at this exact moment. They don’t have Derrick Johnson 2.0 or a Dontari Poe at his peak, although Derrick Nnadi might become the run defense version of him with time.
The reality is former Chiefs general manager John Dorsey didn’t exactly stack the defensive cupboard while they were at their peak with the next wave so they didn’t have to pay their initial wave as it got older and at a higher risk of injury. So the ability to maintain the level of performance was sacrificed with each injury or departure. That’s what led to last year and this year. They hit on their offensive picks to build their new strength while striking out on most of their defensive picks. The defensive rebuild was always going to take two years because of the contracts previously handed out that limited the ability to maneuver in their cap situation. Current general manager Brett Veach had to clear half of it in 2018 and will have to reset the other half of bad contracts in 2019.
The window to put all the pieces together for a Super Bowl run has already started and will likely close quicker than people realize. The offense is at its peak with Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt, Chris Conley and DeMarcus Robinson all on rookie contracts. Travis Kelce and Mitchell Schwartz are in manageable contracts and Sammy Watkins will likely be the Chiefs highest paid player on offense until the full financial effect of a potential Hill extension were to kick in.
The ability to fix the run defense is only the tip of the iceberg in a much bigger bill that will come due in the following seasons.