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09-13-2005, 01:44 AM
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Twice the rush

Johnson’s play alters Chiefs’ running game


The Kansas City Star

“We don’t have to limit what we can do with him anymore.”
Offensive coordinator Al Saunders, on running back Larry Johnson

Dick Vermeil and Al Saunders were once strong believers in having one and only one featured back if the Chiefs offense was to thrive.

They changed their thinking because Larry Johnson forced them to.

Vermeil was vague about specific plans to use Holmes and Johnson in Sunday night’s game at Oakland and beyond. The Chiefs may or may not continue the pattern of two series for Holmes, one series for Johnson they used in Sunday’s 27-7 season-opening win over the Jets.

But it’s clear Johnson will play.

“It will help keep Priest fresher and stronger for a longer time,” Vermeil said. “It will allow Larry to continue to grow and make plays.

“We’ll have a plan each week. Everybody knows it’s not ideal for either guy, but they were both pretty darn fresh late in the game. It was impressive.”

The problem with a two-back rotation is that the Chiefs will have to find a way to keep two egos satisfied rather than just Johnson’s.

“The only downside is if someone gets unhappy,” Vermeil said. “It’s hard to keep two talented football players at one position real happy.”

The Chiefs can live with that, at least for now. They liked their results from their first look at their running back by committee that much. Johnson rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns, Holmes 85 and one.

The Chiefs ran for 198 yards, second in the league heading into the Monday night game. Their healthy 5.8-yards-per-carry average was best in the NFL.

It marked the first time a healthy Holmes shared the stage since he, Vermeil and Saunders joined the Chiefs in 2001. The Chiefs would use Johnson or another back only when Holmes needed a rest or the Chiefs had a comfortable lead.

Those days appear over. Johnson’s development has as much to do with that as anything.

“When you go to running back by committee, you can run into problems if you have special plays for one guy and special plays for another guy,” said Saunders, the offensive coordinator. “Then you have to manufacture a game plan for each guy. That makes things very, very tough.

“Because of Larry’s advancement in the system, we don’t have to limit what we can do with him anymore. His pass protection has improved greatly, his pass receiving has improved greatly. If he wasn’t able to do those things, he couldn’t play much. As long as he continues to play like he did, there’s no problem.”

When Johnson came to the Chiefs as their first-round draft pick in 2003, he had trouble with the basics like taking a handoff, much less the more difficult tasks like pass protection.

He played in only six games as a rookie and got the ball just 21 times.

Holmes’ 2004 season ended halfway through because of a knee injury, but the Chiefs went with Derrick Blaylock instead of Johnson. It was only after Blaylock was injured that Johnson received his chance and he proved to be a capable runner.

He showed the Chiefs he was an adequate pass protector and receiver this year in training camp and the preseason. As a blocker, he mastered not only how to block oncoming pass rushers, but also whom he’s responsible for.

As a receiver, he learned the routes and how to adjust depending on coverage.

“He could always run the ball,” Saunders said. “That was never the issue. That’s why he was drafted here. What he had to learn was how to be an effective pass blocker and how to be an effective pass receiver. He went to Penn State. They never really passed the football.”

Johnson had a 35-yard first-quarter touchdown run against the Jets on a carry that would have gone to Holmes had he not pulled himself from the game after the previous play, when he had his own 35-yard run.

Johnson later had a 23-yard run, but his most impressive carry might have been his 4-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown. There was no hole, so Johnson moved the pile himself.

Johnson is bigger and stronger than Holmes, making him a more natural candidate to be the short-yardage and goal-line runner. But Holmes, who set the NFL record with 27 rushing touchdowns in 2003 and was on pace to break it again before his injury last year, does well in such situations.

Vermeil said he isn’t inclined to use Johnson exclusively in that role.

“It depends on who’s in on that series,” Vermeil said. “I certainly don’t plan on substituting him in there. We’re talking about the all-time touchdown leader. Whoever has that series, that’s who takes it in.”