Ray Lewis was once considered the best middle linebacker in football, but he passed the torch to San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis years ago. While Willis is still dominant, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson may actually be the better linebacker this year.
While pass-rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston and safety Eric Berry have been given a ton of credit for the team’s suffocating defense, Johnson has wallowed in relative obscurity despite the fact that he is having a great year.
The middle linebacker is widely considered the quarterback of the defense. If the quarterback gets the majority of the credit for the offensive output, Johnson deserves the credit for the Chiefs’ defensive performance so far this season.
Johnson should be able to record his 100th tackle this weekend in Oakland, but 16 inside or middle linebackers have recorded more through 13 weeks. He has added 3.5 sacks, one interception and two fumble recoveries.
The traditional stats for linebackers that don’t rush the quarterback are obviously a bit limited. Tackle stats are highly inaccurate, and it’s hard to get a feel for just how good a linebacker is in coverage if he isn't getting a ton of interceptions.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Johnson is the best inside linebacker in the league right now with a grade of 15.0. His work in coverage is particularly notable, as his 10.8 coverage grade makes up most of his overall total.
The other important factor is consistency. Some linebackers can flash great ability at times, but Johnson hasn’t had many bad weeks this season. In fact, Pro Football Focus has graded him negatively in just one game this season.
Johnson might only have 3.5 sacks, but he is a very effective blitzer. He has put more pressure on the opposing quarterback than just about any inside linebacker in the game. Johnson can cover, he can blitz and he can stuff the run.
Apart from the Chiefs' special teams, Johnson was a key reason the team stomped Washington last weekend. With Kansas City already up 10-0, he intercepted a slant route that set up yet another Chiefs touchdown. Johnson has been making plays like this all season; he just doesn’t have all the flashy stats to back it up.
Johnson read Robert Griffin III on the interception. He trusted his eyes and quickly committed to undercutting the pass. If he hesitated at all, there was potential for a big play against the Chiefs because there was only a single safety deep and the cornerback was playing with outside leverage.
Against the run, Johnson is also one of the best. As with any good run defender, he can get off blocks. Take this play against Washington on a stretch play to the left.
Johnson quickly evades a big blocker and seems to know intuitively where the ball is going to be. More often than not, he is the first to arrive. It was exceptional run defense by the Chiefs and a great job by Johnson to slip the block and still impact the play.
With safety Eric Berry trying to cut inside of running back Darren McFadden, Johnson was able to sift through traffic to get a sack. Johnson’s execution was superb, and it was also a brilliant play call because Pryor is known to drift and run to his right.
Johnson’s ability to do it all is almost unparalleled in the NFL today at the linebacker position, and his versatility has served the Chiefs well. At this point, there’s not much Johnson can’t do on a football field.