ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The Chiefs didn't need to sign Kevin Vickerson to be filled with familiar faces on their defense: Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Dontari Poe and Eric Berry have each snatched the Broncos' attention with their play in recent years.
But the season-ending torn Achilles tendon suffered by inside linebacker Derrick Johnson last week is a sharp blow to Kansas City's defense, and removes a player who has given the Broncos fits since the Chiefs were led by Dick Vermeil, Trent Green and Priest Holmes.
"I'm not sure you ever completely make up for a great player like that," said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. "But we expect the next guy to step in and do a good, solid job for us and everybody else around him to pick it up."
The "next guy" is James-Michael Johnson, a college teammate of Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall's at Nevada who was taken one round before Marshall in the 2012 draft. The younger Johnson is speedy, but isn't in Derrick Johnson's class as a run defender; he needs time and repetitions to catch up. He'll get them now.
But the Chiefs' run defense sagged after Derrick Johnson's injury. After allowing the Titans just 26 yards on their first carries, they were gashed for 139 yards on the next 26 run plays. Tennessee averaged more than twice as many yards per carry (5.4) after the injury than before (2.6).
Derrick Johnson's absence will not change much about how the Broncos attack the Chiefs, noted Broncos running back Montee Ball.
"Well, our scheme is the same," the second-year running back said. "We have a great gameplan that we're most definitely going to execute."
There is reason to believe the Chiefs' run defense can recover, and it lies in Poe, arguably the game's best 3-4 nose tackle. A remarkably conditioned athlete for his size (6-foot-3 and 346 pounds), Poe is quick off the snap, draws double teams and allows the inside linebackers to focus on filling gaps rather than dealing with traffic from the interior offensive linemen. For the same reason that Denver's linebackers can make plays with Terrance Knighton in front of them, Kansas City's back-end run defenders are free to attack.
Poe is also an asset in the pass rush, which remains the Chiefs' core defensive competency. Unlike last year's game in Kansas City, the Chiefs will have outside linebacker Justin Houston, who notched two sacks of Titans quarterback Jake Locker last week. ProFootballFocus.com credited Houston with quarterback hurries, twice as many as fellow outside linebacker Tamba Hali.
But the Broncos will have to be careful of devoting too much attention to Houston and Hali. Defensive end Allen Bailey also had a solid game in the pass rush last week; he is effective enough to take advantage of the double-teams Poe will draw and could be a challenge for left guard Orlando Franklin.
FACING AN OLD FRIEND
Kevin Vickerson was one of the most respected players in the Broncos' locker room the last four seasons, and seeing him in the helmet and garb of a rival will be jarring. The Chiefs signed him after losing defensive end Mike DeVito to a torn Achilles tendon.
"Of course, it's going to be weird," Ball said. "Great guy. Great guy. We wish the best for him, obviously except for this game. But yeah, great guy. Taught me a lot. Taught the defense over here a lot."
The pertinent question this week is: how much will he teach the Chiefs defense about the Broncos' pre-snap checks and calls?
"Probably. He's not a quiet guy," said Ball. "He's going to be saying a lot pre-snap, but we'll be prepared for everything."
"I think 'Vick' likes us enough to not tell them anything," Gase said with a laugh. "He's practiced against us long enough but the good thing about our offense is that it's pretty fluid as far as the terminology we use so we'll be able to protect ourselves.
"Whatever information he gives them could help them maybe, but I'm not about to chase a bunch of ghosts. I just kind of [have] got to go with the game plan we've got going."