One of the main reasons the Kansas City Chiefs were a trendy pick to win the AFC West was because of the return of Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki, Jamaal Charles and Matt Cassel from injury. The defense in Kansas City was expected to be the strength, and the offense merely needed to be average for the Chiefs to add to the seven wins from last season.
The offense is on track, but the defense is grappling with injuries to four starters and a one-game suspension to another that threatens to derail a fast start to the season.
Middle linebacker Derrick Johnson and nose tackle Anthony Toribio have ankle injuries, safety Kendrick Lewis has a shoulder injury and Brandon Flowers recently returned to practice after missing most of the preseason with an injured heel. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali will also serve a one-game suspension in Week 1.
The official injury report that will be released late in the week may or may not shed light on which players will be able to play on Sunday and to what extent they are injured.
Johnson, Flowers and Toribio are three key players on Kansas City’s defense and missing a game or otherwise playing at less than 100 percent weakens the entire unit. Hali’s one-game absence makes it more difficult to cope with other injured starters.
The nose tackle position is the key to the 3-4 defense, and Toribio has solidified his job in front of rookie first-round draft pick Dontari Poe. The nose tackle is responsible for eating up blockers and occupying two gaps. If the nose tackle is playing well, the inside linebackers are also producing.
There is a reason Johnson had more tackles last year than at any point in his seven-year career. He finally had a quality nose tackle in Kelly Gregg playing in front of him.
Without Toribio, Poe would start, and all indications are, he is not ready to be a starting nose tackle in the NFL. It’s a new position for Poe and he is a project. Poe has the best chance to make an impact as a one-gap player, not as a starter at nose tackle.
Johnson’s performance is likely to suffer if Toribio misses time, and that’s not to mention Johnson may not play or may not be 100 percent to start the season. The defense is Kansas City would be weakened up the middle without Johnson or Toribio, and missing both would be a complete disaster scenario for the Chiefs.
Early indications are that Johnson will be able to play, but the teams are inclined to disclose as little information as possible on injuries so their opponents can’t game plan against them.
The Chiefs will be without their best pass rusher in Week 1, which obviously puts more pressure on the secondary. It’s a secondary that is also grappling with two injuries to starters—Flowers and Kendrick.
Flowers missed the entire preseason with a heel injury, but he returned to practice on Monday. “If I’m out there on Sunday, then that means I’m ready to go,” Flowers said. “We’ll know game day.” (via Adam Teicher of the Kansas City Star.)
In other words, Flowers is a game-time decision against the high-powered Atlanta Falcons passing attack.
Lewis’ status is much murkier. There haven’t been any indications that he will be able to play after injuring his shoulder two weeks ago. That means Abe Elam, who has started 47 of 48 games for the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns the last three years, will start.
Elam is a much more proven player than Flowers’ backup, Jalil Brown. The Chiefs would probably be much more comfortable with their ability to overcome the barrage of injuries if they could consistently rush the quarterback, but that’s no guarantee without Hali.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, it appears that most of the injuries are minor and the players should miss more than a game or two. However, the injuries have exposed the depth on defense and how a couple key injuries could drastically change the direction of the team in 2012, just as it did in 2011.
The Chiefs have a tough schedule to open the season: they open with the Falcons at home, followed by road trips to Buffalo and New Orleans, a division game against San Diego and the always tough Baltimore Ravens in Week 5.
The health of the defense early in the 2012 season will go a long way in determining how the team finishes, and it isn’t off to a very good start.