KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With 13 years in the NFL, linebacker Derrick Johnson spent much of that time as an every-down linebacker, still playing every defensive snap in five of Kansas City’s first nine games this year, but don’t expect to see that again as the Chiefs entering the closing stretch this season.
“Right now the plan is to not let me play 60-70 plays every game,” Johnson said. “With my age, I think I can be more effective playing half the plays. I’m at a point in my career, I’m not selfish enough to say I want to get all the reps. But to do half the plays with the athletes we have at linebacker, I’m loving it. My body feels good.”
Johnson played 35 snaps against the New York Giants last week. Kevin Pierre-Louis played 34. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said the team plans on using a similar rotation the rest of way, also including Mike linebacker Reggie Ragland.
“We can’t tell you you’re going to play this number of plays because a lot of its based on what group the offense is sending out there,” Sutton said. “So it’s not divided equally amongst those three guys, we just kind of roll them.”
Ragland saw the most significant playing time of his young career last week against the New York Giants. He played 47 snaps after playing just 107 snaps through his first six games.
“Last week I think I really turned a corner getting used to the speed,” Ragland said. “Getting out there and playing it felt real good.”
The development of Ragland and Pierre-Louis this season allows the team to provide more rest for Johnson, who turned 35 this week.
“That’s the big thing,” Johnson said. “When you switch a player out like me, you don’t want to drop off. You want guys out there getting better.”
Both Ragland and Pierre-Louis appear to be turning the corner and making a difference in the defense. Ragland lead the team with nine tackles last week against the Giants. Pierre-Louis led the club with six tackles against the Cowboys. He now has 10 tackles in the last two games after picking up five in his first seven games of the season. The increase in their playing time coincides with the Chiefs showing signs of improvement in their run defense.
Johnson complimented both young linebackers on playing well of late.
“They can move, they’re big, strong,” Johnson said. “I’m actually after the game doing meetings, I’m always coaching them up on different things. Half the time I have my coach’s hat on, so it’s cool.”
He even sees a bit of his younger self in both players.
“Attacking the ball, being fearless, reckless, that’s what I like about them,” Johnson said. “We have a good connection. It’s a three-way deal we’re going here, but we got a good connection.”
The Chiefs have struggled finding the right chemistry at inside linebacker since training camp. The team carries six inside linebackers, including Ramik Wilson, Terrance Smith and rookie Ukeme Eligwe. Sutton also experimented with using safeties in the box trying to find the right mix until settling on the current rotation with Johnson, Ragland and Pierre-Louis.
Ragland believes the team finally stumbled upon a solution that works.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys in that room that can play, so anytime that anybody is down, we all got somebody that is up to play,” he said. “But for the most part I think we do. Everybody’s liking how we’re doing things.”
Johnson said Ragland quickly fit himself into the linebackers room and smoothly added his voice to the group. He said the young linebacker feels comfortable contributing but also possesses a hunger for knowledge, frequently asking questions.
“It’s never a dumb question,” Johnson said. “He wants to know where to be at, he wants to move fast on the field. If you don’t have the knowledge of the game down, you’re not going to move fast and react fast and respond fast. Reggie’s getting in down, I mean he really is getting it down.”
Ragland’s eyes light up and a smile comes to his face talking about his mentor. He appreciates the opportunity to play alongside Johnson for reasons that go beyond the football field.
“Derrick’s been excellent,” Ragland said. “He’s like big brother. He’s also like a coach too. If there’s something I don’t know, I can go ask him, personal and football wise. Derrick’s great. I’m glad I’m able to play with a guy like that and a future Hall of Famer.”
Johnson convincingly makes the case that he feels happy becoming a part-time player at this stage of his career. Playing just half the team’s defensive snaps last week left him feeling more refreshed during the game and through this week’s practices.
“When you’re usually 60-70 plays and you play 30-35, it’s a big difference, it’s a big difference on the body,” Johnson said. “Again, of course I want to play more, but we have young guys that I can switch in and out with that are doing well and they’re getting better.”
Ever the competitor, Johnson still yearns to play more, but he’s trying to put the interest of the team ahead of his own desires.
“I’m a ball player, of course I want all the reps,” Johnson said. “It’s about winning and if you’re not in this game to benefit the team, that’s not good soup for the team.”