Tamba Hali’s return means changes for Chiefs linebackers

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali joined his teammates for practice the first during the preseason at the team's facility in Kansas City, Mo. (Photo: Matt Derrick, ChiefsDigest.com)
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali joined his teammates in practice for the first time during the preseason Tuesday at the team’s facility in Kansas City, Mo. (Photo: Matt Derrick, ChiefsDigest.com)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Linebacker Tamba Hali joined the Kansas City Chiefs on the practice field on Tuesday for the first time in the preseason, and his return marks a few changes for the team as they continuing preparing for the opener Sept. 11 against the San Diego Chargers.

Head coach Andy Reid said the Chiefs will bring Hali along slowly, allowing time and patience for the 32-year-old veteran recovering from offseason knee surgery.

“We just have to see how he does as we introduce him back into practice,” Reid said.

Hali’s return means fewer opportunities deeper down the depth chart in one of the more intriguing position battles on the team. The Chiefs are also without Justin Houston, and there’s no timetable yet on his return. The ability of Hali and Houston to get on the field at top form has a ripple effect on roster decisions down the line.

It does speak to the team’s depth at outside linebacker that the absence of two Pro Bowl pass rushers has not diminished the team’s performance against the pass in the preseason. The Chiefs held Seattle to 248 yards passing in the first preseason game and Los Angeles to 125 yards on Saturday while notching two sacks in each game.

Hali’s return to the lineup should provide the Chiefs with more confidence in the pass rush, but how quickly the 11-year veteran reemerges remains to be seen..

When Jamaal Charles returned to practice last week the Chiefs worked him into practice slowly, and the team expects to take a similar approach with Hali. Veteran backups Dee Ford and Frank Zombo started both preseason games without Hali and Houston available.

Linebacker coach Gary Gibbs said Ford is a better player than he was a year ago, but he and Zombo need to work to bolster the team’s pass defense.

“He has good get-off in terms of pass rush, but he has to get more physical in that area,” Gibbs said. “He’s got to be better in coverage. If you asked me about Frank Zombo I would say the same thing.”

The edge pass rush directly impacts the ability of the Chiefs to defend in the secondary. Cornerback Marcus Peters said his play has not had to change with Hali and Houston out of action.

“We got Dee Ford and Zombo stepping up huge for us as those guys are out, and it’s just the next guy up until those guys get back,” Peters said.

Clouding the picture at linebacker is the injury to Dezman Moses, who has not practiced since suffering a glute injury Aug. 16. Moses is listed on the third-team at right outside linebacker and has served as the primary backup to Zombo in Hali’s absence. He faces competition from free agent Jonathan Massaquoi.

In the mix as well is free agent Andy Mulumba, who is listed as third-team at right outside linebacker behind Houston and Ford. Mulumba has also helped fill the void on the other side behind Zombo in light of the injury to Moses.

Rookie Dadi Nicolas, a sixth-round pick from Virgina Tech, has shared second-team action with Mulumba at left outside linebacker, and displayed speed and tenacity rushing the quarterback in the team’s first preseason game at Seattle.

The looming question on the right side of the linebacking corps is the timetable for Justin Houston. No expectation for his return has been set by the Chiefs. That means Ford backed up by Mulumba and Nicolas for now.

But it also means tough decisions on the horizon for the cut down to 75 players on Aug. 30 and for getting down to 53 on Sept. 3. The Chiefs carried four outside linebackers on the opening roster a year ago. That means up to four veterans players with NFL experience may not make the cut.

Matt Derrick is the associate editor for ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @MattDerrick.