During the past two years, Chiefs inside linebacker Jovan Belcher has made more tackles than anyone on the team besides Pro Bowler and fellow inside backer Derrick Johnson.
But making tackles is one thing. Making an impact is another.
And Belcher, a two-year starter, knows how important it is to start producing game-changing plays such as forcing fumbles, recovering fumbles, sacking the quarterback and intercepting passes.
In 2010, Belcher was third on the team in solo tackles, and last year his 120 stops were second to Johnson’s 131, according to Chiefs’ coaches. But Belcher has but one sack and one forced fumble in 34 career regular-season starts, though he collected 1.5 sacks of Baltimore’s Joe Flacco in the playoff loss after the 2010 season.
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“I want to jack all my stats up,” said Belcher. “I have to keep working. I have to work harder if I didn’t get a sack last year or (an interception) the year before.”
Granted, Belcher doesn’t get as many opportunities to get sacks or pick off passes as Johnson because Belcher is replaced for an extra defensive back in obvious passing downs.
“Many offenses have gone to multiple wide receiver sets, and many times we match that with our nickel group,” said coach Romeo Crennel, “and he’s not on the field. We feel like Belcher is a good, solid leader and player for us in our 3-4 defense. What will be a determining factor in his playing time is how much 3-4 defense we play.”
But teams do throw the ball on first and 10 from two-wide receiver sets and in short-yardage situations, too. So when making all those tackles, wouldn’t it be nice to see Belcher strip a ball free from a ball carrier?
“We know the role he plays on the team, and it’s not like he has to have three or four interceptions for us to be a great team,” said Johnson. “He has to do what he does and be stiff and tough against the running game.”
A year ago, the Chiefs brought in Brandon Siler as a free agent to compete with Belcher. Siler suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury in training camp and missed all of 2011, but he appears fully recovered this season.
“Belcher is the starter; Siler is competing,” Crennel said. “Belcher falls into that category, where we like him, we like what we see, we like what he brings to the team.
“He also makes a contribution on special teams, so he’s a three-down player, whereas other guys who play three downs don’t play as much on special teams.”
It’s not that Belcher doesn’t have a track record at getting to the quarterback. He rolled up 17.5 sacks in his last two years at Maine, where he played on the outside as a pass rusher.
“It’s a different position I played there,” he noted. “Different angles, different everything.”
Belcher, who played all over the field in high school on Long Island, New York — linebacker, nose tackle, offensive tackle and fullback — was better known as an All-America prep wrestler, which is why he ended up at Maine instead of a Division I school.
“They called me and wanted me to play football for them,” Belcher said of the Maine Black Bears, “so I jumped on the first train up there. I try to bring the wrestling mentality to everything I do. It’s a certain mentality you build in wrestling that brings you through life.
“Wrestling really builds your mental toughness. You learn great balance on the field, but it’s mostly mental toughness, pushing through the hard parts.”
Belcher, 6-2, 228, was undrafted out of college and signed with the Chiefs as a rookie free agent in 2009 and was converted from the glamorous role of pass rusher to handling the dirty work as an inside linebacker. He was the only undrafted rookie to make the opening-day active roster and appeared in all 16 games, starting three. He led the Chiefs with 17 special teams tackles as a rookie before becoming a fulltime starter in 2010.
That’s a long way to come for an undrafted player from what was then Division I-AA football.
“I’m a first-rounder, and every time I see a guy who was not drafted and succeeds in this league, I’m giving them high fives,” Johnson said. “Hats off to them. He’s a smart player who has worked his rear off.”
Belcher also has gained the admiration of another small-college player, nose tackle Anthony Toribio, who went undrafted out of Carson-Newman (Tenn.) University.
“Jovan is a scrapper,” Toribio said. “Your shots (at making it) as an undrafted player are at a minimum compared to someone from a big Division I school. You come in with that hungry attitude, you have to scratch and claw your way into the league. That’s what keeps you around.”