At the start of just about every defensive series, Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson gives a shout-out to ends Tyson Jackson and Mike DeVito.
Johnson realizes Jackson and DeVito do a lot of the dirty work that enables him and outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston to produce the highlight-reel plays for a defense that leads the NFL in sacks and fewest points allowed per game.
And he wants them to know it.
“If you had me miked up during the game,” Johnson said, “I’m talking to DeVito, (nose tackle) Dontari Poe and Jackson ” said Johnson, the Chiefs’ leading tackler. “I’m gassing up all the time, ‘Hey, good job, good job,’ because of what they do.
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“They are pushing linemen back, linemen are double teaming ’em, and the outside guys and myself have an opportunity to make plays. I love ’em.”
The performances by DeVito, who was signed as an under-the-radar free agent during the offseason, and Jackson, who had to agree to a $10 million pay cut to stay with the Chiefs, have not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
After the Chiefs recorded nine sacks in their 24-7 win over Oakland a few weeks ago, the coaches awarded DeVito a game ball.
He didn’t lay a hand on Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, but he was credited with five tackles in the run game, which put Oakland in second- and third-and long situations and thus allowed Hali to get 2 1/2 sacks, Johnson two and Houston one.
“It’s funny: To get a game ball in this defense, you have to get like 12 tackles or five sacks just to qualify,” DeVito said with a laugh. “I just want to be down there stopping the run and doing my job, playing my position and playing within the scheme.”
Both DeVito and Jackson are replaced in the Chiefs’ defensive packages in obvious passing downs by extra defensive backs, so they have to make the most of their opportunities on first down and in short-yardage situations.
DeVito made his five tackles against Oakland while on the field for just 39 snaps. The next week against Houston, he earned an off-the-charts plus-4.0 run defense score by Pro Football Focus on just 23 running plays.
Jackson has been able to get to the quarterback even on early downs. He has two of the Chiefs’ league-leading 36 sacks, two quarterback pressures and has batted down two passes.
“I will put my money on Jackson as being one of the smartest defensive linemen in the National Football League, just knowing what’s going on prior to the snap,” said coach Andy Reid in about as effusive a compliment of a player as he’s given this season. “I’m not sure I’ve been around one that quite has that feel that he has. He’s very intelligent.
“I don’t know what his GPA was or anything like that, I’m just telling you football-wise he is a sharp cookie. I enjoy both of those two and how they go about their business. Both of them are tough to block and love to play, which is important. Neither of them want to come out of the game those guys are fighting to play and stay in the game. It’s neat to be around.”
Jackson, considered a bust for much of his career after being selected with the third overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, smiled when told of Reid’s comments.
“I promise you, my GPA was not that good,” said Jackson, who helped LSU win the 2007 national championship. “But it’s football. This is my craft. I take pride in it. I do a lot of film study during the week. I try to make the game more simple for me come Sunday. It helps improve my game a lot more getting a quick step off the ball just knowing and anticipating what the offense might do.
“Outside the football world, people don’t pay attention but for me personally, when we come back on Wednesday and watch the film, those guys give me a pat on the back and let me know they recognize what I’m doing. I take joy in my teammates knowing out there busting my tail.”
After signing with the Chiefs last spring, DeVito, who spent six years with the New York Jets, played an important role in helping the club transition to the new scheme brought in from the Jets by new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
“These guys picked up the defense really fast,” said DeVito, 29. “You could see it. When we first got this defense in New York, it took us a while to get used to it. These guys, it’s like they’ve been playing in it for years.”
Jackson, 27, was a quick study. Though the Chiefs are still running a 3-4 front, he had to adjust from the read-and-react scheme of Romeo Crennel to Sutton’s aggressive style. In the old scheme, Jackson took on blockers but seldom made impact plays. Now, he does both.
“Everybody would like to be the guy that got the sack or the interception or whatever,” Sutton said, “but somebody has to do these other jobs to go in there and bang heads and nobody knows what you’re doing.
“Tamba always says if you want to rush the passer, you have to be able to stop the run. That’s true; if you can’t stop the run, then it’s hard to go rush the passer. That’s the first order of business every week. (Jackson and DeVito) are tough physically, tough mentally, they have great awareness. Those guys are doing those hard jobs play after play after play, and they have done it on a highly consistent basis.”
This is an important season for Jackson, who will be a free agent at the end of the season after agreeing to a restructured contract from $14.72 million to a guaranteed $4.2 million for this season.
It’s a decision Jackson has not regretted.
“I’ve always enjoyed my time with the Chiefs,” he said, “and everything right now is on the up and up and I’m having a great time. I’ll continue to put in the hard work each week and see what comes out of that.”