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To pass on activating Jamaal Charles, Chiefs obviously have plans for Justin March-Lillard

Linebacker Justin March-Lillard started the first five games of the season before breaking a bone in his hand. John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS/Getty Images

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs got their first extended look at life without veteran inside linebacker Derrick Johnson in Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans. Johnson is out for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon in the previous week’s game against the Oakland Raiders.

What the Chiefs saw led them to choose Justin March-Lillard, an inside linebacker, as the player they would designate for return from the injured reserve list. They could have opted instead for running back Jamaal Charles, who would have been eligible to be activated off IR next week.

But Charles is no longer an option for the Chiefs, who have been offensively challenged for much of the season and could use the kind of boost a healthy Charles could provide.

It speaks to what the Chiefs thought about their defense and particularly the inside linebacking spots that they chose to designate March-Lillard, a starter in the season’s first five games before he broke a bone in his hand.

The Titans rushed 29 times for 148 yards -- more than 5 yards per attempt.

March-Lillard returned to practice Wednesday. The Chiefs could play him in Sunday night’s game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium.

“Justin is a lot like the other guys who have come back after being out for a while," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “They’ve got to acclimate again and get used to it and all that stuff. It’s just going to be a process over the next couple of days or a week or whatever it is [to] see where he’s at, if he’s going to be able to contribute and how fast he can contribute."

Even if he doesn’t play against the Broncos, March-Lillard seems certain to play soon. The Chiefs have lost three of their top inside linebackers to injuries this season: Johnson, March-Lillard and Josh Mauga.

“We’d like them all back," Sutton said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.

“I say kiddingly all the time that they don’t give you discounts in this league for guys that are starting for the first time. You’ve just got to play."

Johnson was replaced in the regular defense against the Titans by D.J. Alexander. An excellent special-teams player, Alexander hadn’t been getting much work on defense. He played eight defensive snaps in the first 13 games before getting in on 40 plays against the Titans.

He missed a tackle attempt on Tennessee’s first play and things didn’t get a whole lot better for him.

“I’m not excited exactly with how I played," he said. “Derrick Johnson’s shoes are big shoes to fill. The expectation is high. As the weeks go on and the more reps I get in practice, I’ll get better."