KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Chiefs’ replacement for one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers this Sunday will be an unheralded veteran linebacker out of tiny Wheaton College.
It won’t be the first time Andy Studebaker has started a game, but it’ll surely be like none other: It’s the season-opener against the Atlanta Falcons, and Studebaker will be taking the place of Tamba Hali, who is suspended for Week 1 for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Studebaker knows that he can’t be Hali, whose 12 sacks last season ranked second in the AFC. Studebaker isn’t known for getting after the quarterback anyway. Instead, he’s known for grit and determination that not only allowed him to make an NFL roster out of college, but hang around this long.
“You can’t go in there being someone you’re not,” Studebaker said. “For me, I’m going to know my job. I’m going to play as hard as I can. We’re going to, as a defense, play hard, know what we’re doing, communicate effectively and put ourselves in a position to have a chance.”
It’s certainly a tall order against Matt Ryan, Roddy White and the rest of the Falcons, especially considering the Chiefs defense could be without several other key defenders.
Safety Kendrick Lewis is expected to miss the game with a shoulder injury, and cornerback Brandon Flowers (heel) and linebacker Derrick Johnson (ankle) have been limited in practice, while their backups — Jalil Brown and Jovan Belcher — are dealing with groin injuries.
That means the Chiefs could be without as many as four starters — or, best-case scenario, some of them at less-than-optimal health — and six guys overall on defense.
“Backups have to be ready to go when they have an opportunity, and be ready to step up and help their team win,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. “Whoever we put out there, that’s what I expect.”
Still, that’s not the way any team wants to enter a new season, and certainly not the way you want to face the Falcons, who had the league’s eighth-best pass offense a year ago.
Ryan dismissed the Chiefs’ litany of injuries with rhetoric that made Kansas City’s defense sound like the ’85 Chicago Bears. But he also conceded that not having Hali staring at him from across the line of scrimmage was something of a blessing.
“It goes without saying that he’s a great player. He’s one of the best in the league,” Ryan said. “I’m sure they’ll make adjustments in terms of the scheme and personnel to try to create some of what they’re going to miss without him, but they’ve still got a talented defense.”
It’s unknown what Hali took to prompt the positive test during training camp. He hasn’t been available to speak with the media, and isn’t even allowed at the practice facility this week.
Without him in the lineup, the Chiefs will be scrounging for any kind of pass rush.
Justin Houston had 5 sacks as a rookie last season, but most came with offensive lines focused on stopping Hali on the opposite side. Johnson had two sacks last year, and Amon Gordon and Wallace Gilberry — both no longer on the team — were the only other guys with more than one.
That means the Chiefs will be looking for some pressure from Dontari Poe, their first-round draft pick, who could start. Even though he plays defensive tackle, the Chiefs believe he could provide some push up the middle that will free up other guys, even if Poe doesn’t necessarily get to the quarterback himself.
“Every team we play is going to be good,” said Poe, who acknowledged some growing nervousness. “I’m just doing whatever the coaches tell me. Preparing the best I can.”
That’s the same mantra that Studebaker keeps repeating.
A descendant of the family that developed the famed Studebaker automobile, the 6-foot-3, 248-pounder started only five games his senior season at Wheaton College because of a foot injury.
He was released by Philadelphia, the team that drafted him, but hooked up with the Chiefs later in his rookie season, and he’s stubbornly stuck around ever since.
Now, he’s getting a chance to step in for Hali, truly feeling the spotlight for the first time.
“You don’t know how opportunity is going to come, and I say that quite a bit,” Studebaker said. “When you prepare hard and practice hard, as if it’s coming today — your opportunity — then you will be prepared and you’ll be able to help the team out.”