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Kansas City Chiefs' playoff loss to Pittsburgh Steelers still hurts on inside

By The Sports Xchange
Kansas City Chiefs' playoff loss to Pittsburgh Steelers still hurts on inside
Kansas City Chiefs' Tamba Hali (91) and Derrick Johnson (56) celebrate after recovering a fumble against the Baltimore Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. File photo by Tim Umphrey/UPI | License Photo

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs hold no fond reflections of last season's 18-16 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

However, it's the lingering image of running back Le'Veon Bell carving the team's defense for 170 rushing yard that stings as much as any other memories of the game.

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"It hurt," said linebacker Derrick Johnson, who missed the game after suffering a season-ending Achilles rupture in week 12. "Of course it hurt the guys that were on the field. It hurt me more because I couldn't help them."

Every area of the defense shared ownership of the leaky run defense, but many of the problems stemmed from an inside linebacker group stymied by injuries and short on experience.

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The Chiefs ranked 26th in rushing defense a year ago, yielding 121 yards per game. The team held opposing teams under 100 yards only four times, and surrendered a season-high 205 yards to the Jacksonville Jaguars in week nine.

Ominous signs arose in training camp a year ago when expected starter Josh Mauga went down because of a labral tear in his hip that would cost him the entire season.

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Justin March-Lillard went to injured reserve following Week 6 because of a hand injury.

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The Chiefs finished the season led by Ramik Wilson, a player the team cast onto waivers at the start of the year, and plugging the gap alongside him with safeties such as Daniel Sorensen.

"I've got some confidence," Wilson said. "We got a lot of depth and a lot of great players. It's some good competition out there and it's going to raise the level for all of us so we're all getting better."

Johnson returned for the opening of camp, giving defensive coordinator a Pro Bowl weapon at the Will linebacker. Wilson is the incumbent at Mike linebacker, but he faces a long list of competitors.

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March-Lillard also returns from the injury, and the team recently re-signed Mauga as well. The team invested a fifth-round pick in Ukeme Eligwe, a former Florida State product who finished his college career at Georgia Southern.

The Chiefs also return Terrance Smith and recently acquired Kevin Pierre-Louis in a trade from Seattle.

The team has stockpiled depth at the position, albeit loaded with question marks and lacking experience.

Still, head coach Andy Reid is pleased with the competition the team has inside.

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"Those young guys are full of energy and they even push the old guys by just energy level," Reid said. "The old guys push the young guys with the mental part of the game. It ends up being pretty good chemistry and good competition. So we'll see how that all shakes out when it's done."

The 30-year-old Mauga brings the most experience aside from Johnson. He also played for defensive coordinator Bob Sutton with the New York Jets, giving him more familiarity with the defensive scheme.

Sutton said he believes Mauga can return to the form that collected 139 tackles in 59 games and 31 starts since 2010.

"It is just getting your legs back," Sutton said. "I'm not talking about conditioning, but the ability to react and see that. He has played a lot of football and I think he has done a really good job here. I think he will be back to where he was at."

Sutton said he's impressed by the play of the rookie Eligwe so far as well.

"I think he has a physical presence in there," Sutton said. "He studies. He knows the game. He is just going to get better and better. I think he has a bright future."

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The newest addition is Pierre-Louis, acquired from the Seahawks in exchange for Pro Bowl special teamer D.J. Alexander. The team closely scouted the 25-year-old coming out of Boston College in the 2014 draft and hopes his upside can provide more depth.

"I think he is going to be a physical guy," Sutton said. "He is not the biggest guy in the world, but he plays very physical and we are excited to have him."

The Chiefs carry seven inside linebackers right now, which means some tough and surprising cuts remain possible on the horizon.

"We have some good competition at that position," Sutton said. "We obviously have a long way to go in camp. So we are going to get a lot of guys reps in here."

Only Johnson appears locked into to a roster spot, and the Chiefs have rotated linebackers alongside him and mixed and matched with second-team reps looking for the right chemistry.

"The thing you want to do is get guys up at different groups to see how they are going to play against really good competition," Sutton said. "But also how they respond to the other guys around them. I think that it will be good for us."

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Wilson believes the struggles from 2016 make himself and his teammates stronger this season.

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The early returns for first-round draft pick Patrick Mahomes are promising, with the former Texas Tech gunslinger drawing rave reviews following a sharp two-minute drill in his second full camp practice and capping that with an 88-yard touchdown drive on Monday.

Mahomes started his two-minute drive with a picture-perfect throw to Ross Travis on a tight end cross down field.

"It was phenomenal," offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. "He's used to that two-minute stuff, it helps him out and he's throwing with confidence."

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Wide receiver Tyreek Hill played only 41 percent of the Chiefs' offensive snaps a year ago, and the Chiefs expect to work the speedster more into the offensive while lightening his load on special teams, according to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy.

"We just need to make sure as we go forward here we put him in the right spots so we don't over-use him, and mentally you want to kind of stick to that less is more mentality so he can play fast," Nagy said.

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Hill caught 61 passes for 593 yards and six touchdowns last season. He also rushed 24 times for 267 yards and three touchdowns.

NOTES: LB Derrick Johnson received treatment for a tooth abscess this week and missed practice Monday and Tuesday. The Chiefs do not expect the 13-year veteran to be out long. ... G Parker Ehinger continues rehabbing from a torn ACL and remains on the physically unable to perform list. Ehinger appeared in the medical tent on the sidelines during most training camp practices so far. ... RB Charcandrick West missed practice Monday and Tuesday because of an ankle injury. West appears in a battle for the final running back spot with eight-year veteran C.J. Spiller. ... T Isaiah Battle returned to practice after opening camp on the non-football injury list. Battle sustained a hamstring injury during a private workout. ... CB Kenneth Acker missed practice Monday and Tuesday because of a groin injury. ... S Jordan Sterns remains out with what the team termed an illness. The undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State has missed four straight practices. ... OL Damien Mama, an undrafted free agent from USC, continues receiving third-team snaps at center. The Chiefs are testing Mama as depth behind Mitch Morse and veterans Zach Fulton and Mike Person. ... DE Chris Jones continues rehabbing following arthroscopic knee surgery on July 12 and remains on the physically unable to perform list. ... CB Ashton Lampkin, an undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State, received snaps with the first-team defense as the Chiefs search for a backup for slot nickel back Steven Nelson. ... LB Tamba Hali is pursuing a musical career off the field. On Monday he released the video for his first single, "The One for Me." Hali remains on the physically unable to perform list.

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