Hard-charging Hali: Chiefs LB makes his presence felt

PITTSBURGH – Early in the first quarter of Saturday night’s preseason game at Heinz Field, a scene nearly played out similar to last season.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was in the pocket looking for an open receiver while Kansas City Chiefs right outside linebacker Tamba Hali was bearing down on him.

Last season, Hali, a Penn State product, and Chiefs left outside linebacker Justin Houston met Roethlisberger in the backfield of a Nov. 12 Monday night game at Heinz Field and sandwiched him for a sack. Roethlisberger injured his shoulder, missed three games and was never quite the same as the Steelers fizzled to a 2-5 finish.

On Saturday, Roethlisberger felt Hali’s pressure again but this time unloaded a deep pass to Antonio Brown for a 49-yard gain just as the long-armed Hali was ready to take him down. Roethlisberger spent the entire first half avoiding Hali, who continued to beat Steelers left tackle Mike Adams, and escaped the preseason game unharmed.

But Hali’s presence was certainly felt.

“[Hali] is a hard worker,” said Houston, a third-year player. “When it comes to pass rushing, he’s a great coach as well as a player who can rush the passer. I feel like he’s taught me a lot about the game. He’s so smart. He studies a lot and is relentless at rushing the passer.”

Hali has forged a stellar seven-year career with the Chiefs after being the 20th player selected in the 2006 NFL draft following his All-American 2005 season at Penn State. He played defensive end for his first three NFL seasons but really saw his career blossom when the Chiefs switched to a 3-4 defense in 2009 and moved him to outside linebacker.

Since then, he’s made three straight Pro Bowls and led the AFC in sacks in 2010 with 14.5. His sack total dropped slightly each of the last two years to 12 and 9 when the Chiefs’ record dipped significantly from 10-6 to 7-9 and 2-14, but he’s still considered one of the top linebackers in the game.

Hali, who left war-torn Liberia for Teaneck, N.J., when he was 10, will turn 30 in November. He’s reached NFL stardom, eight years removed from his college days, but he still flashed a big smile when talking about Penn State.

“I just went up there – I had to pick up my daughter [2-year-old Sia] there,” Hali said. “I haven’t really trained there the last two years, but I went up and met Coach [Bill O’Brien]. I like Coach. He’s a great guy.”

This season, Hali will play for his fourth NFL head coach after Andy Reid replaced Romeo Crennel in the offseason, and the optimism in Kansas City in on the rise after last year’s flop. The Chiefs are expected to make a run at a playoff spot in the AFC West.

“Coach Reid came in, and we have more of a structure,” Hali said. “We’re building the team from a defensive standpoint. He brought in a couple of cornerbacks [Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson] and [quarterback] Alex [Smith]. We’ve been more productive this year in camp, and everything is more in line with the way we wanted. It’s gonna take some time for the entire team to gel, but we’re making strides.”

Although the coaching staff has changed, Hali’s main role will continue to be to get to the quarterback. He is in the third year of a five-year, $57 million contract and is one of the highest paid defensive players in the game.

“I still get to rush the passer a lot,” Hali said. “But I’m doing more. I’m dropping more in coverage. I have to do everything that’s asked of me, but I like rushing the quarterback.”