Over the last four seasons, no running back in the NFL has been more productive than the Chiefs Priest Holmes. He has an eye-popping 72 rushing touchdowns in that span. But with Holmes' season, and possibly his career, over with a neck injury, there is a new sheriff in Kansas City and his name is Larry Johnson.
It's not often a team can lose the production of a player like Holmes and not miss a beat but with Johnson waiting in the wings, that's the case in Kansas City.
For the Patriots to be victorious on Sunday, they must stop Johnson, who has been on fire since replacing Holmes in the starting lineup.
"He's a physical, tough runner," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "He breaks a lot of tackles that lead to long runs so we have to make sure we wrap up and tackle well against him."
Vrabel went on to say that the more defenders the Patriots have around Johnson, the better.
"He's the kind of back who can wear you down over the course of a game," he said. "We have to make sure to have four or five guys around the ball at all times because he's tough to stop one-on-one in the open field."
After only playing sparingly as a rookie and not seeing much action during the first half of last season, Johnson started complaining about the lack of carries he was getting. These comments triggered coach Dick Vermeil to say it was time for Johnson to take his diapers off and become a man.
When Holmes was injured 10 games into the 2004 season, Johnson indeed took the diapers off, busting loose for 541 yards and nine touchdowns over the final six games. The second-year back topped the 100-yard mark in three consecutive games and scored a touchdown in six straight to close out the year.
After his strong finish, the Chiefs realized they had another explosive offensive weapon they needed to get on the field. Johnson has a rare combination of size and speed. At 235 pounds, he can run between the tackles but he also has the blazing speed to score from anywhere on the field. This was evident when LJ went 97-yards for a score in the preseason.
"He's extremely fast for a back his size," Tedy Bruschi said. "He can pound it up through the tackles but as soon as you give him a crease, he's gone."
Through the first eight games, Holmes and Johnson were alternating at running back with Priest getting two series and then LJ would come in for one. The Chiefs stuck to this rotation pretty strictly until Holmes was injured. Even though he still wanted to be the primary ball carrier, Johnson handled the situation much better this year than he had in the past and now the spotlight is entirely on him.
"They had such a tremendous player in Priest Holmes and then Johnson comes in and breaks the team's rushing record in his second start," assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia said. "That's pretty impressive."
Johnson has racked up 849 yards and eight touchdowns over the first 10 games. In his first start against Buffalo, he rushed for 132 yards on 27 carries and. He followed that up with a team record 211 yards last week against Houston. It was the seventh time he has topped 100 yards in a game and the Chiefs are now 6-1 when he goes over the century mark, evidence of how important Johnson is to the Chiefs offense.
"Our primary goal is to always shut down the other's team running game but this week it's even more important," Bruschi said. "We played them last year and we know what we're up against with their offensive line and running backs."
When he first went out with a neck injury, preliminary reports said Holmes was going to retire because he had a lump on his spine. Those reports turned out to be premature but there is still a question regarding Holmes' future and if he will ever play football again. What isn't in question is the fact this is now Johnson's team and any chance the Chiefs have of getting to the Super Bowl rests on his shoulders.
"Larry brings a defensive mindset to the offense," All-Pro guard Brian Waters told the media last week. "He's the type of player his teammates can rally around. We have confidence that Larry can help take us where we want to go."
The Patriots rush defense has played much better since the return of Richard Seymour and now that Bruschi has a couple of games under his belt. In their last two games, New England held both the Saints and Dolphins under 100 yards rushing as a team. The Patriots defense will have a much tougher test on Sunday, however. The Chiefs run the football as well as any team in the NFL and Johnson is an emerging star. If the Patriots can shut down a vaunted Chiefs rushing attack, it will be a huge confidence builder for a team looking to make a strong playoff push.
With Bill Belichick at home with his family following the passing of his father, Scarnecchia addressed the media on Wednesday in his absence, saying coach Belichick is where he needs to be right now. Scarnecchia said things were pretty much running the same as they always do and there is enough leadership on this team to move forward until Belichick rejoins the them later in the week…Tom Brady is 27-3 in games played on Thanksgiving Day or later, including the playoffs...Adam Vinatieri has made 23 consecutive fourth-quarter field goals, dating back to Dec. 8, 2002.