KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles saw teammate Derrick Johnson and Ray Lewis play together at the Pro Bowl a couple of years ago, he was struck by what could be the beginning of a new era.
Lewis, the AFC’s eminent linebacker for more than a decade, was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. And Charles wondered who would be a better candidate than Johnson to take Lewis’ place as the game’s dominant linebacker?
“He's the leader of the defense,” Charles said of Johnson. “He's the veteran guy … a guy who made Pro Bowls two straight years. He wants this to be his year. I hope he can be the next Ray Lewis, passing that torch to D.J.
“I hope D.J. can take over because he has crazy talent. He runs to the ball … he makes explosive hits. He can cover guys.”
Lewis, 37, retired after helping Baltimore win its second Super Bowl last season. Johnson, 30, has yet to taste any postseason success in his career, but was flattered by Charles’ comparison.
“That’s a humbling statement since Ray Lewis is the face of linebackers in this league,” Johnson said Friday after the Chiefs finished preparations for Sunday’s season opener at Jacksonville. “I had a chance to play with him at the Pro Bowl. Great guy. Smart. Had me doing all the dirty work in the game at times. He’d say, ‘Go, cover him.’
“The guys who are in that small circle of good linebackers in the league try to do what Ray has done and follow his legacy.”
Johnson said the one attribute he picked up from Lewis was his knowledge of the game.
“We’re two different style of linebackers,” Johnson said, “but he doesn’t have to have my speed to actually get to the play or dissect a play. He can get to the play same way I can, and I’m faster than Ray, so you say, ‘Man, he’s really smart.’”
Though Johnson is playing for his fifth head coach and fourth defensive coordinator, the Chiefs retained a 3-4 scheme, a system which plays to his strengths of playing in space.
“I know this defense like the back of my hand,” Johnson said. “The players who make the most plays in the league are the players who know what’s going on in their own scheme and what the offense poses. When you know what you’re doing, and you do it well, you can make a lot of plays.”
Johnson, a Pro Bowl starter in 2012, led the Chiefs in tackles for the third straight season with 125, the fifth time in his career he has made 100 or more tackles. In fact, his 874 career tackles rank fifth in Chiefs history, 125 shy of Gary Spani’s club record of 999.
But Johnson didn’t have an interception last season for the first time since 2006, and even at this stage of his career, Johnson sees room for improvement.
“My job is to get better every year,” Johnson said. “That’s the best thing about football. There’s always room for improvement.
“Being more consistent in taking on blocks. Mental errors … open-field tackles. It’s a broad category, but …. if I can help my team win, at the end of the day, that’s what I’m paid for.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton plans to take full use of Johnson’s ability to make plays from sideline to sideline.
“He gives us a lot of flexibility,” Sutton said. “When you have speed … it isn’t only making plays, it’s preventing plays. A lot of times those go unnoticed, but all of a sudden, a play that was getting ready to break out for 15 or 20 yards is capped off for five yards.”
Veteran outside linebacker Frank Zombo, who joined the Chiefs after spending three years with Green Bay, has learned to appreciate Johnson’s skills.
“In watching him play, I’ve told many people this, ‘Wait until you see DJ run around this field,’” Zombo said. “If he’s not one of the best middle linebackers I’ve seen in person play the game … instinctively, he seems to find his way to the ball.”