KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson didn't have a sack in last Sunday's victory at St. Louis. Didn't have an interception. Nor did he force a fumble or recover one.
But he was still the most-dominant player in the game.
Johnson made a career-best 17 tackles and tied his career best by knocking down four passes as the Chiefs maintained their one-game lead in the AFC West with a 27-13 victory.
"He's stacked a bunch of really good games together, but that game in particular was a true all-pro effort," said Chiefs head coach Todd Haley, in a rare moment of lavishing praise on an individual player.
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"He has been epitome of what we're trying to do, just get a little better every day, and in his case, with such ability, he ends up being a real good player."
Johnson's effort earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors and highlighted a remarkable turnaround by someone who after four years as a starter, was consigned to passing downs and special teams last year under the new coaching staff.
Johnson, the Chiefs' first-round pick in 2005, never sulked or lashed out publicly. Hampered by some nagging injuries, particularly to his hamstring in 2009, Johnson dedicated himself to an arduous off-season program so he would be ready to re-claim his starting position.
"It was the hardest I ever worked," said Johnson, while preparing for Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans. "It's a whole mindset you have to get your body ready.... It's a long season, and once the season starts, it's boom, boom, boom, you have to hit it hard, because during the season, you can't do all that big stuff, running all those miles...... doing all that lifting, so now, it's mostly mental.
"I felt like I always have good off seasons, but for some season, being an older player, you know better, you do better."
The results were immediate. Johnson, 28, won the starting right inside linebacker job in training camp and opened the season with 13 tackles in the season-opening win against San Diego and 11 more tackles in week two at Cleveland.
He returned a pass interception for a touchdown in the victory over Jacksonville, and in early November signed a five-year contract extension with about $15 million guaranteed.
"It's been a blessing," Johnson said. "Hard work does pay off. Faith in God pays off. A lot of people around me can get the credit as far as my teammates and my coaches. That's why you can't get caught up in the moment at times, like last year when things are not going your way, or things are inconvenient for you. You just have to close your eyes and keep working and things will work out for you."
The Chiefs are using him in myriad ways. One of his pass deflections against St. Louis was coming on the blitz. Another came while dropping in pass coverage. He used his strength to contain Rams running back Steven Jackson to 67 yards rushing and a 3.5-yard average and speed to run down receivers.
Johnson's only shortcoming has been an ability to hang onto potential interceptions throughout the season. He had one chance against the Rams when a pass went off his hands, and another ball he batted went high in the air, and safety Eric Berry nearly picked it off.
"This year has been tough catching-wise," Johnson said. "Hopefully I'll get one (against Tennessee). But the idea going into the game is you always try to make the plays you can make. Playing this linebacker position is all about passion and effort and getting to the ball.
"You make 16, 17 tackles in one game, and you've got to give the guys up front a little credit for helping (take) their big linemen out... it was one of those games, it started early getting tackles, and it was like, okay, keep going and keep going... "
The scary thing for opponents is what the future may hold for Johnson.
"Truthfully, he hasn't reached his potential yet," fellow linebacker Jovan Belcher said. "He's playing great. He can play a lot better, and he knows it."