KANSAS CITY— Ryan Lilja had never played a meaningful game at center, unless you count the sixth grade — in basketball. But that's exactly where the Kansas City Chiefs veteran found himself Sunday.
More accustomed to playing guard, Lilja performed flawlessly in delivering snaps to quarterback Matt Cassel when second-year pro Rodney Hudson went down with an injury. In fact, Lilja performed so well that he could be the starting center for the remainder of the year.
The Chiefs put Hudson on injured reserve Wednesday with a broken bone in his left leg, and even though they signed offensive linemen Russ Hochstein and Bryan Mattison to provide depth, coach Romeo Crennel said the plan is to move forward with Lilja in the middle of the line.
"Lilja was, to me, the hero of the game, a guy who's never done a snap in a real game," said Cassel, who helped lead Kansas City to an overtime victory that may well have saved its season.
Lilja played offensive tackle in high school and moved to guard in college, but he admitted that he was "terrified" — only half-jokingly — when he was pressed into service at center in the noisy Superdome.
"In this job, that's what they tell you, 'There are going to be three things you don't expect to happen every day.' Not just every week, but every day. So you have to deal with it," Crennel said. "You have to replace guys that are not available."
There have been a slew of those guys the last couple of years.
Last season, it was the quality of players hurt: Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry, All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles, Cassel and tight end Tony Moeaki.
This year, it's been sheer quantity.
Starting cornerback Brandon Flowers and backup Jalil Brown are back after missing time earlier this season, linebacker Derrick Johnson has been hobbled and safety Kendrick Lewis remains limited in practice with a right shoulder injury sustained during a preseason game.
Tight end Kevin Boss sustained a head injury two weeks ago at Buffalo, and he missed practice along with running back Peyton Hillis, who hurt his ankle in the overtime win over the Saints. Wide receivers Dexter McCluster (elbow) and Devon Wylie (hamstring), tight end Jake O'Connell (knee) and defensive tackle Anthony Toribio (ankle) were all limited.
Lilja was also limited in practice, even though he's supposed to be the guy replacing Hudson at center, a position where he's never started a game in the NFL.
"I thought Lilja did an excellent job (against New Orleans), to tell you the truth," Crennel said. "He had shotgun snaps with no quarterback-center exchange problems in there."
There was also plenty of praise for Jeff Allen, the rookie who slid in at guard.
"Jeff came in and did a great job," said Charles, who ran for 233 yards, including a franchise-record 91-yard touchdown sprint. "He was in the game when I ran the 91 yards."
Hudson, a second-year pro, had done an admirable job taking over the starting center spot for Casey Wiegmann, helping to solidify a new-look line that now has Eric Winston at right tackle.
"The way it looks, it's going to be several weeks with him," Crennel said. "There's a broken bone, but it doesn't require surgery. He's got to be off it for several weeks, and then several weeks with crutches, so it's going to be most of the season."
Hochstein has ties to Crennel and Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli from his time with the Patriots, where he spent the majority of his career. The 34-year-old lineman has started 36 of the 137 games he's played over 10 seasons in New England, Tampa Bay and Denver.
Mattison has started four of the 15 games he's played with Baltimore and St. Louis.
Both new offensive linemen were at practice Wednesday when the Chiefs worked without pads. It was Crennel's decision to give some of the ailing guys an extra day without contact.
"You understand that things are going to happen that are out of your control. So you deal with it and move on because you have to play the game," Crennel said. "You deal with it, you have the next guy ready and you go from there."