Ed. Note: Every evening from now until July 26 – the day every Chiefs player is expected to report for training camp – we will countdown and discuss some of the more important questions for the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs.
By Thanksgiving of this year Derrick Johnson will be 31 and Tamba Hali will be 30.
When Hali was drafted the George W. Bush was in the middle of his second term and Barrack Obama hadn’t been elected as U.S. Senator yet. Johnson was almost done with his first preseason as a profession at the time Hurricane Katrina hit.
Hali and Johnson have combined to play 15 seasons with the Chiefs and made four Pro-Bowls (two for each). Hali played on the opposite end of Jared Allen who hasn’t been a Chiefs in over five years.
Age is quickly becoming a concern for the two best talents of the Chiefs front seven. Or to put it a better way: Johnson, Hali and five other guys.
Since the arrival of Scott Pioli the Chiefs have had very little in the way of production from their front seven, occupying the bottom third of the league in sacks and allowing rushing yards by the bucket full. Had it not been for the Herculean efforts of Hali and Johnson, things on the defensive side of the ball could have been much worse.
Now the defense has a new problem to encounter with Hali and Johnson: age.
It was bound to happen. Players get older, break down, become a shell of what they once were. No, Johnson and Hali are not there yet – we think – but that time is coming, and coming soon. Watch Tamba Hali play and you can see the motor, but you can see the ability to maintain his max effort style of play decrease.
Johnson’s game is based on speed and athleticism. He’s saved the Chiefs countless times by being able to get to the edge before even the edge defenders can get there. Speed is the first thing to go as a player ages – how much longer can Johnson’s biggest asset hold up?
These are the questions that come with 30 year old players. The clock is ticking and there is no warning for when a player will suddenly hits the obstacle every player cannot hurdle: age.
There is little to suggest this will be the year each hit that obstacle, but time is running out on both players. Hali was second on the team in sacks, even though he missed the season opener, and every team loaded up on his side to stop him. Johnson may be the best middle linebacker in the AFC, and he had nearly 40 more tackles than the nearest defender on the team.
The Chiefs have to capitalize on their two best veteran talents on the defensive side of the ball this season while each is still considered an asset.
To do that, Justin Houston and Dontari Poe have to make the leap to being consistent forces on a down-to-down basis in order to take advantage of the opponents focusing on stopping Hali and Johnson. Houston began improving this last season as he led the team in sacks (10), and was named to the NFL’s Top 100 list. We don’t know how much of his success was related to teams putting too much emphasis on Hali. Teams will – or at least should – be ready for Houston this season. His ability to maintain what he developed last season, and improve on it will be key to the Chiefs pass rush.
Then there is former number 11 overall pick, Dontari Poe. While he showed flashes at the end of last season, Poe absolutely has to be a better interior defender. Johnson’s ability to make plays in the middle of the field will be affected, in part, by how disruptive Poe can be in the middle. The fewer people Johnson has to go through to make a play, the better it will be for the Chiefs rushing and pass defense.
If Poe and Houston don’t make the necessary advancements in their games, the value of all the plays Johnson and Hali make will be diminished, wasting the value of having two of the best linebackers in football for yet another season.
Time is ticking. Or in the words of Chris Berman: tiiiiiiick tick-tick, tick-tick. KC needs to take advantage of what little time they have left.