ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – The Chiefs are set to experience life without two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery on July 15.
Poe’s absence could forecast doom for a run defense coming off a 2014 season where the unit ranked 28th against the run (127.2 yard allowed per game).
Concerns heighten when considering the murderer’s row of running backs awaiting the Chiefs from Weeks One to Seven in the form of Arian Foster, C.J. Anderson, Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson and La’Veon Bell.
But the nature of the NFL means the Chiefs won’t have time for self-pity without a critical member of the interior defensive line.
“This is an NFL team so you’re going to have people to plug in that’s pretty good, that’s going to help out,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “We’re going to get the job done until Poe gets ready to come back. Until then, he is a big piece missing, and he’s one of the guys that I rely on the most. But at the same time he knows we can get the job done and hold it down until he comes back.”
Defensive end Mike Devito agreed.
“They are definitely going to have to step up,” DeVito said. “You are always looking for reps and it is hard to get reps when everybody is healthy. Now, it gives these younger guys an opportunity to get out there and get some playing experience so they need to embrace it and make the most of it and have fun with it.
The Chiefs have a plan with one of those young players.
Coach Andy Reid said earlier in the week that fourth-year pro Jaye Howard would have the first shot to replace the 6-3, 346-pound Poe.
And Reid stayed true to his word during the team’s first full team practice of training camp on Saturday.
The 27-year-old Howard took the majority of first-team repetitions at defensive tackle during 11-on-11 team drills, while DeVito swapped positions with Howard on some snaps in the base 3-4 defensive scheme.
“I’m an interior player,” Howard said. “I can play anywhere on the defensive line. In college, I played nose guard, so I played everything – end, tackle, whatever – I’m just trying to get on the field.”
The Chiefs’ comfort in Howard shouldn’t surprise given his performance in 2014 when he filled in for DeVito, who was on injured reserve with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Howard appeared in 16 games with 10 starts, totaling 26 tackles and a sack. He also played on 444 total snaps (436 on defense), a stark contrast to the 53 total snaps (38 on defense) in 2013.
The repetitions and extended playing time provided poise.
“I’m going lights out right now,” Howard said. “I’m in a contract year, so it’s definitely helped me, gave me playing time to be able to get on the field. It gave me confidence. I performed well and just build off last year, but what I did last year is over. It’s about this year now.”
The 6-foot-1 Howard looks the part of a defensive tackle after gaining 10 pounds, a result of weight training during the offseason.
“I’m up to 330 right now,” Howard said. “I stayed up here during the offseason, got to work with (strength and conditioning coach) Barry (Rubin). It’s not fat; it’s muscle.”
The Chiefs will require that muscle to start the season given the list of who’s who among NFL running backs on the schedule.
Howard said he is aware what waits for the run defense, but immediately pointed out the Chiefs get to practice against a special player in his own right.
“We go against a great back every day in practice,” Howard said. “He’s going to prepare us. Jamaal Charles is one of the best backs in the league, so going against him can prepare us for any offense we face.”
The Chiefs ultimately need Howard to help anchor the defensive line while Poe recovers.
No small task, for sure, and Howard knows he has big shoes to fill, but he’s up to the task.
“It hurts when it’s one of your guys,” Howard said, “especially a player like him, a Pro Bowler. We really go as he goes. It was kind of hard to take, but I know he’ll want us to keep fighting and keep pushing forward.”
It also helps to have Johnson, an 11-year pro, and DeVito, a ninth-year pro, join the battle following lost 2014 campaigns to provide a boost to the defensive line.
“We were young last year with me coming in and (defensive end Allen) Bailey coming in,” Howard said, “but now we’re one year out there playing as a group. We got our leader back in DeVito, so we’re looking forward to any task we have to face.”