Johnson, new defense spark Chiefs win

Carl Peterson has been second-guessed for personnel moves at times. On Sunday, there weren't many doubters after the Chiefs' win.

Updated: September 11, 2005, 10:31 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The game ball from Sunday's convincing 27-7 Chiefs victory didn't go to halfback Larry Johnson, who broke down the Jets for 110 yards and two touchdowns in nine carries. Nor did it go to linebackers Derrick Johnson or Kawika Mitchell, who combined for 16 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Grandfatherly coach Dick Vermeil was bypassed, as well.

This one went to team president Carl Peterson. Despite their prominence in the league, coaches are still the employees, and the boss is the boss. Peterson, very close friends with Vermeil, is the boss and at times has made some player acquisitions that might not have been the most popular.

Larry Johnson
AP PhotoLarry Johnson ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
It was Peterson who went against the coaching staff's interest a couple years ago and used a first-round pick on Larry Johnson, a star running back at Penn State who was nearly invisible during his first year-and-a-half in the league. Johnson is going to alternate series with Priest Holmes this year. Holmes gets two series. Johnson gets one. Both should get a great deal of carries.

It also was Peterson who brought back Gunther Cunningham to coordinate a defense that underachieved and diminished any good done by the high-scoring Chiefs offense. Players complained in 2003 that their defensive problems involved the scheme. Cunningham brought a player-friendly approach, and the Chiefs defense still stunk last season. So Cunningham took a wish list to Peterson that included linebacker Kendrell Bell, cornerback Patrick Surtain, safety Sammy Knight and defensive end Carlos Hall.

If the Chiefs could get two or three of those players, Cunningham would be happy. Peterson spent $16 million and got all four. Then, the defense lucked out and got linebacker Derrick Johnson, the lead candidate for defensive rookie of the year, in the NFL draft.

"There's nothing like having talent," Vermeil said. "I've been on the field a long time, and we've never had better football players sitting in this room, collectively. We have some talented players on defense who can run and make plays. Our draft and free agency were good, and then the maturity of the kids that were already here blended together. I could just see from watching practice against our offense, it was going to be a much better defense."

Coming into the game, Vermeil was confident his team could stop the Jets and defending league rushing champ Curtis Martin. Martin finished with 20 yards on 57 carries and was a non-factor.

The Jets made a lot of mistakes, but that's not why they lost. Sure, Chad Pennington fumbled six times and threw an interception. Center Kevin Mawae rifled a shotgun snap more than five yards over Pennington's head for another fumble. Laveranues Coles beat cornerback Dewayne Washington twice for sure touchdowns and simply dropped the ball. Rookie kicker Mike Nugent slipped on an easy 28-yard field goal attempt and had it blocked.

About the only piece of good execution by the Jets came in the third quarter, when nose tackle James Reed got into a sideline fight with linebacker Jonathan Vilma and punched him in the mouth. Reed was about the only Jet to finish a play he started.

While Jets defenders were landing punches, their Chiefs counterparts were executing the schemes.

"I'll tell you what: It is that our linebackers have improved so much," defensive tackle Lional Dalton said. "They are totally different players than they were last year. They are the quarterbacks of our defense. It is going to be so much more successful because of those players. They are smarter players. They are a lot more mature."

And they have speed. Derrick Johnson is a 250-pound lightning bolt with 4.5 speed. He closes on quarterbacks but also has the speed to chase down receivers 30 yards down field. Bell is the tough, physical, strong-side linebacker who can throw down a blocking tight end and chase down backs. Mitchell, who struggled making tackles last year, appears to have improved greatly from last season. Now, he makes plays.

"Gunther Cunningham stayed after us," Mitchell said. "He's aggressive with everything. We stayed aggressive as players, and I think we came together and bought into it. We want to be the best defense. That's what we're aiming for. If you aim any lower than last then you won't achieve it."

After a year of frustration, Cunningham's message reached his defensive linemen. He wants them to be physical and aggressive. He wants them to use their bodies to effectively punch opposing offensive linemen in the month. No, not the James Reed way. Cunningham wants them to do it without flags.

"Our defensive linemen are firing off the ball and knocking the offensive linemen back," Derrick Johnson said. "If their guards pulled, the linemen would knock them back and [disrupt] everything. That lets the linebackers clean up. The linebackers have speed, and that's what we do."

More impressively, Peterson's acquisitions all came through. Derrick Johnson pressured Pennington on blitzes along with stopping running plays. Surtain made an interception. Knight forced a fumble on a sack. Bell was solid at the point of attack.

Offensively, the Chiefs played to their defense by being a little more conservative. In that case, the Jets made things easy because their defense looked like last year's Chiefs. Holmes opened the game with runs of 35 and five yards and Johnson came in on the third play and ran 30 yards for a touchdown. On the next possession, Trent Green drove 95 yards without a problem to set up a Holmes 3-yard touchdown run.

Three minutes into the second quarter, the Chiefs led 17-0 and had gained 206 yards in 21 plays. Left tackle Willie Roaf pulled a hamstring after the third possession, and the offense turned even more conservative, gaining 183 yards on the final 41 plays, averaging almost six yards a play.

Perhaps the most interesting strategy change involved the running backs. Holmes, the king of fantasy football for his high totals in combined yardage and touchdowns, is now sharing the halfback position with Johnson, and Holmes is comfortable with that.

"Two-to-one is the guideline we are using, but will it always be like that, I would say no," Holmes said. "Just like today, when we started off the game and we had the first three plays where I went one-two with the runs, and he came into the game. It only makes sense, because he's fresh, and we already know the rotation, so let's get him started early. With LJ having to wait two series, I think that's too long."

I've been on the field a long time and we've never had better football players sitting in this room collectively. We have some talented players on defense who can run and make plays. Our draft and free agency were good and then the maturity of the kids that were already here blended together.
Coach Dick Vermeil
Like Marshall Faulk with Steven Jackson in St. Louis, Holmes endorses sharing the position. Holmes got his carries -- 22 for 85 yards and a touchdown. Overall, the Chiefs ran for 198 and passed for 200. That's pretty good balance.

"I like the way we were doing things," Larry Johnson said. "In game situations, there are going to be times he'll play more than me, because he has more experience in tight game situations. Defenses aren't going to know what's going to happen. He runs differently than I run, and I think when defenses try to gameplan for two runners, it's going to hurt them in the long run."

Larry Johnson describes Holmes as a shifty, inside-outside runner who runs the stretch play about as well as anyone in the league. Johnson's runs are more north and south, and they are definitely more wreckless.

"Me, I'm young, I don't care and I will run into you," Johnson said.

Not everything was perfect for the Chiefs. They suffered four injuries, and three could be major problems. Surtain suffered a concussion after his interception return, but Vermeil says he should be fine. Roaf's hamstring injury will force him to miss at least a week, if not longer. Fullback Tony Richardson suffered a knee injury, but he was standing near his locker talking, and it may not be too serious.

Defensive tackle Ryan Sims suffered a mid-foot sprain in the Jets first offensive possession and had to be carted off the field. He left the locker room on crutches and in great pain. No one knows if the injury was serious. All Sims said is that he will have an MRI Monday.

With a 17-0 lead, the Chiefs went to more two-tight end sets and ran the ball. The league's highest scoring offense of 2004 used some formations in which Chris Horn was the only wide receiver. The defense tried to shut out the Jets but lost that when Chris Baker caught at 23-yard touchdown from Jay Fiedler with 29 seconds left.

However, failure to get the shutout didn't keep Cunningham from also getting a gameball.

"A lot of people put a lot of time into identifying players who we think can get and see how they fit," Peterson said. "Certainly, Gunther was a big part of that. It certainly makes everything feel better that it has come together at least for the first week."

The Jets certainly would agree.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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