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Johnson, Hali lead Chiefs’ defense

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Sunday, July 28, 2013, at 10:11 p.m.

— Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson was a bit surprised to learn he had a new roommate at training camp this year. After two years of bunking with running back and fellow Texas alum Jamaal Charles, he was paired with outside linebacker Tamba Hali.

It made a lot of sense.

Johnson and Hali, both coming off their second straight Pro Bowl appearances, are the senior citizens of the Chiefs’ defense. Johnson, the Chiefs’ first-round pick in 2005, and Hali, the first-round pick in 2006, will be playing for their fifth head coach, fifth defensive coordinator and third general manager in Kansas City.

Who could better relate to the challenges and changes this year’s team will encounter?

“Yes, we have a lot in common,” Johnson said. “We’ve been through a lot together …”

The one experience Johnson and Hali have not shared is playoff success. The Chiefs have lost both postseason games in which they’ve appeared — in 2006 at Indianapolis and in 2010 against Baltimore — and somewhere deep inside, as the franchise rebuilds again, Johnson, 30, and Hali, who turns 30 during the season, have to be wondering if their window to win a championship is closing.

“We’re getting older, and it’s starting to hit you more,” Hali said. “Eight years ago, it was fun coming out here and proving you could play the game, but at this stage in your career, you want to prove something, you want to win a Super Bowl, you want to accomplish something.

“Playing football and making money is not the goal. It’s to win a championship for the Chiefs. There’s a chip on our shoulder for the older guys to get something done … because a couple of years from now we’re probably not going to be here coming to camp.”

Johnson, who led the team in tackles with 100-plus stops for the third straight season in 2012, is the Mr. Inside of the Chiefs’ defense. He’s a run stuffer who also drops back and defends tight ends and backs coming out of the backfield. He enters this season 125 tackles shy of the franchise-record 999 set by Chiefs Hall of Fame linebacker Gary Spani.

Hali, who had nine sacks in 2012, is the Mr. Outside. He’s a relentless pass rusher and ranks fourth in franchise history with 62.5 career sacks and third with 24 forced fumbles,

“I don’t feel like a senior citizen,” Johnson said. “I feel young. I’m moving faster than I have ever moved before. I’ve been working out and working my butt off this off season. Just can’t wait to get back with all the young guys and get this thing going. Football is fun, just like when I played in pee wee ball.

“I’m at the prime of my career right now. I’m living life and doing the best I can do right now. We have a really good team on paper, we just have to get the chemistry down and put it all together. There’s no ceiling for Derrick Johnson.”

Though the Chiefs went 2-14 last season, Johnson believes he won’t have to wait around for a long-term fix by Andy Reid’s new coaching staff.

“That’s part of the NFL,” Johnson said. “It’s always made for a quicker turnaround. We do have the necessary pieces to make it a quick turnaround. We’ve forgot about last year. That’s how you have to think about the NFL. You have to have a short-term memory and focus on this year. We’ve got a lot of good players here, and we can get some stuff done.”

Indeed, besides Hali and Johnson, the Chiefs sent four others to the Pro Bowl last year, including fellow linebacker Justin Houston and strong safety Eric Berry. New defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is trying to incorporate their skills into an aggressive unit.

“It’s an attack-style defense,” Johnson said. “It’s coming from every direction. A lot of things are going on, and I’ll be a big part of it. As a defensive player, you want to keep the offense off guard. That’s the main goal. Keep the offense off-guard and hit them when they’re not looking or send more than they can block.”

Hali, the first draft pick by Herm Edwards in 2006, has seen these coaching changes before and said a new staff can rejuvenate the players.

“Anytime you get a new coaching staff to come in with their plan, as players you always want to prove yourself, you want them to understand you’re a good player, and you want to be here and buy into what they’re selling,” Hali said. “Coaches do have their favorites, they didn’t draft any of us here except for the guys who came in this year.

“We’ve been on the bottom of the totem pole, and our goal is to go to the playoffs. We have a bunch of good players who want to prove we can play at a high level. If we don’t, we won’t be here.”

Reid doesn’t think that will be a problem for his two elder statesmen.

“They’ve done everything I’ve asked,” Reid said of Johnson and Hali. “They know when to keep it loose and when to crank it up. At 30, that’s when you have to feel like you’re 20. They played like it last year. Both were in the Pro Bowl. I’ll take that.”

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