The Chiefs began their practice week Monday without four defensive starters, including their two Pro Bowl linebackers. They’re preparing to play against the Atlanta Falcons, who were seventh in the NFL in scoring last season, that could present a problem.
The situation could improve some by the time the Chiefs and Falcons open their seasons against one another on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. But even early in the week, things were far from ideal.
“You’d like to have all your guys all the time,” coach Romeo Crennel said. “But in this business you don’t have all of them all the time and so you have to depend on other guys to step up and do their part when they’re called on.”
Linebacker Derrick Johnson, nose tackle Anthony Toribio and free safety Kendrick Lewis didn’t go through team portions of practice. Johnson and Toribio have injured ankle, Lewis an injured shoulder.
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Johnson, injured in the final preseason game against the Packers, appeared the most likely of the group to be ready for Sunday’s game.
“As long as I make progress every day, that’s the plan,” Johnson said when asked whether he would play against the Falcons. “I am a fast healer. Let’s hope that this week I can be even faster.”
The Chiefs’ other Pro Bowl linebacker, Tamha Hali, will not play against Atlanta. He is serving his one-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Cornerback Brandon Flowers, who didn’t play in the preseason and hadn’t practiced for more than a month, was back to work Monday. But Flowers, who has what the Chiefs have called as bruised heel, said he didn’t know if he would play Sunday and suggested the decision might come down to day of the game.
“If I’m out there on Sunday, then that means I’m ready to go,” he said “We’ll know game day.”
For one day, at least, the Chiefs patched together a lineup that included backups in four spots. Cory Greenwood and Brandon Siler took turns at Johnson’s position. Rookie Dontari Poe is starting for Toribio and veteran Abe Elam for Lewis.
Andy Studebaker, Edgar Jones and Cameron Sheffield have been rotating in Hali’s spot.
“Particularly (in Hali’s spot), that’s what has to happen,” Crennel said. “We’ll have to rotate guys in there and we will during the course of the week and I expect all of them to step and to be able to produce. Now, are they going to produce the way Tamba is able to produce? Only time will tell that.”
All coaches have jitters the opening week of the season given the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Even before the injuries, suspension and resulting lineup changes, this would have been an anxious week for Crennel.
The Chiefs are one of the NFL’s youngest teams. They have five players who are 30 and they are the oldest. Heading into their ninth NFL seasons, guard Ryan Lilja and special teams player Terrance Copper have the most NFL experience.
“If you have a veteran team (with players) who have proven themselves and that you feel good about, I think you can be less anxious,” Crennel said. “I think everybody gets anxious when the season starts. But if you’ve got a veteran team and you’re solid all across the board, then I think you can be less anxious because you know what you have.
“(The Chiefs) have some young players who have to play and we all know that young players make mistakes. You don’t know how many mistakes they’re going to make or what a mistake might cost you during the course of the game. Some guys, when there are 70,000 or 80,000 in the stands and they know that it counts, they react differently. We’re going to have to see how all of that plays out.”
Adding to the mystery about how well the Chiefs will play on Sunday is their uneven preseason. The Chiefs went 1-3 with the starters playing well in the first and fourth games but not so in the middle two, when the defense was particularly disappointing.
Crennel said he takes comfort in the fact the Chiefs have gotten it done, even if not consistently.
“In the first preseason game, the way they executed in that game and then the last game, they showed they could execute at a good level,” he said. “So I think they gave us enough to feel good about going into the regular season.
“One of the things I wanted to do was to be able to say we could be solid and sound coming out of the last (preseason) game. I think from our play versus their first guys, we were solid and sound coming out of that game.”
Atlanta was also 1-3 in the exhibition season, losing to Baltimore, Cincinnati and Jacksonville while beating Miami. The Falcons made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, though they lost their playoff game each time.
“This is a good Atlanta team coming in,” Crennel said. “They have some skill on all sides of the ball, really. So we’re going to have to play our best to win.”