For a team that has lost two of its top stars – running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry – for the season while still in September, the Kansas City Chiefs are short on big-time playmakers. There are several players that need to step up their game to make up for the shortage of game-breakers, which is why the battle between Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali and Vikings left tackle Charlie Johnson is this week's key matchup.
Johnson hasn't been a complete bust, but hasn't been a standout, either. There is enough concern about his level of play that, three weeks into the season, the Vikings have auditioned unsigned veterans in order to potentially find someone that can provide depth or even push for a starting spot. After years of solid production from the left tackle spot, the Vikings have struggled to hold the edge consistently on the line and Hali is not the kind of player you want sketchy line play against.
Casual fans may not be aware of Hali, but he is a force that can blow up plays singlehandedly. He has been a true ironman, starting all 82 games of his NFL career and has been the biggest difference-maker on the Chiefs defense since Jared Allen had his much-publicized falling out with the organization and was traded to the Vikings. Hali is a big play waiting to happen and he has built an impressive résumé in his six-plus NFL seasons.
In his last 35 games, he has recorded 25 sacks and has been known throughout his career for delivering the molar-loosening type of hits that pop the ball free. He has notched an amazing 19 forced fumbles in his career and, depending on where and when they happen, they can be the big plays that kill a drive, shift momentum quickly from the opponent to the Chiefs and can often be the difference between winning and losing.
In the 3-4 defense that the Chiefs run, Hali is given a lot of latitude to move around to create mismatches in space. Occasionally he will put a hand in the dirt and rush like a typical 4-3 defensive end. More often, he is standing at the line poised to attack, a la Lawrence Taylor from years gone by. As if his ability to create sacks and fumbles isn't enough to concern opponents, he is on pace to shatter his own personal best for tackles. His career high for tackles is 66 in 2009. Through three games, he already has 21 tackles – a pace that would see him finish the season with 112 tackles.
It is likely the Vikings will direct pass plays away from Hali, moving the pocket to the right side of the offense to give Johnson some additional room to try to neutralize his pass-rush skills. They will also likely use tight ends and running backs to chip Hali off the snap to keep from getting to top speed quickly. He has shown that he deserves such attention from opposing offenses and the Vikings likely will be no exception to that rule.
The Chiefs haven't had much to celebrate this season after not only getting off to a 0-3 start, but being the lowest scoring team in the league (27 points) as well as the team that has given up the most points (109). They may not have a lot going for them, but the one player who could potentially make the biggest impact in getting them their first win is Hali, which is why his battle with Johnson (and occasionally some of his friends) is this week's key matchup.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.