KANSAS CITY, MO — His first tackle came on Sept. 11, 2005 when he stopped New York Jets running back Curtis Martin for a 1-yard gain.
If all goes well, tackle No. 1,000 will come Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium where the Chiefs are hosting the Denver Broncos.
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson is on the threshold of becoming the leading tackler in Chiefs history, or at least since they started tracking statistics for tackling in 1977. Johnson sits with 993 career tackles, seven shy of 1,000 and the spot ahead of former Chiefs and Kansas State linebacker Gary Spani (1978-86).
Johnson was prepared last year to reach the 1,000-mark and the team record, but the ruptured Achilles tendon that he suffered in the 2014 opener ended his season and put pursuit of the record on hold.
“I thought about it last year a lot,” Johnson said. “My main focus now is helping the team win and that record will get broken while I’m doing that.”
After missing 15 games last season, Johnson was back in his familiar spot at inside linebacker in the season opener in Houston. He finished the 27-20 victory over the Texans with eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a pass deflection.
“I was kind of like a high school kid, just jumping gaps here and there; I wasn’t reading like I should,” Johnson said of his comeback performance. “But as I settled down throughout the game, I played a lot better. This game hopefully I can start faster than I did when I started last week. This is the home opener so this is going to be big.”
It’s been nearly 30 years since Spani set the team standard during his 124-game NFL career playing on the inside of the Chiefs, whether it was a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment.
“It’s a mark of professionalism and consistency; linebackers, that’s what we are supposed to do – make tackles,” said Spani, who works in the team’s front-office handling special events. “He’s just been consistent and it’s been fun to watch him grow.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Johnson has been one of the most consistent players week-to-week that’s he’s been around in his 24-year NFL coaching career with Green Bay, Philadelphia and Kansas City.
“You find guys that have done it as long as him, you go ‘yeah, you know what, he’s one of the better ones I’ve coached’,” Reid said. “All the linebackers are different. They kind of all put their own stamp on how they play. Derrick is a smart player, he’s a downhill player and he’s able to get small. He’s a good sized guy and he’s able to get small and low and be very effective. He’s pretty elusive in there.”
Over his career, Johnson has been selected for three Pro Bowls, but he has played in only three games in the playoffs and that’s kept his national profile at a low level. Over the years few inside linebackers in the NFL have made as many plays as Johnson.
In 139 games, he’s totaled 993 tackles, 23.5 sacks, 11 interceptions with three returns for touchdowns, 20 forced fumbles and seven recovered fumbles.
Making plays is something Johnson has done since his college career at the University of Texas where in his senior season he set an NCAA single-season record with nine forced fumbles.
“I can remember studying him in college and he’s always been a very active, instinctive linebacker,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “I remember thinking, ‘Man, this guy is really active, he’s got this instinct and he’s very sudden, really sudden in-line and he can jump underneath a block and make a great play.’ Anybody can do that, but he seems to have the really good instincts to not be wrong very often.”
Sutton compared Johnson to one of his former pupils when he was coaching linebackers with the Jets.
“One guy that I had who was pretty good at it was Jonathan Vilma,” Sutton said. “Jonathan could slice in there and it was the same thing; he was very quick in-line. That’s what you need, because that opening is only there for just a mini-minute and bam, you’ve got to make that decision or that door shuts.
“We have no drills to teach that, I can tell you that. That comes with the player. I think he’s one of those guys who, I know if you’re on offense, he has to be a pain in the rear because he can do those things that you say shouldn’t happen.”