When All-Pro safety Eric Berry went down in week one with a season-ending injury there were mixed feelings on how much him not being in would affect the defense. What have we learned?
While we all were crushed when Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry went down with a season-ending injury week one, we weren’t sure how much it would affect the defense. There was still plenty of talent on this side of the ball to carry on without him, but as weeks go by, we can only wonder how much better the defense would be with him on the field.
I knew that there would be a drop off between Berry and second-year safety Eric Murray, but I didn’t think that it would be more than that. In my mind, I convinced myself that at least it was at the safety position where we have plenty of talented players, thankful that the loss was not at another position where the fall from one player to another was steeper—like cornerback with Marcus Peters or outside linebacker with Justin Houston.
The Chiefs defense has struggled to get back to last year’s playmaking self and we can only wonder how much of that has to do with Berry being out. Now of course, not all of it is on Berry being out but how much of it is? I think along with cornerback Steven Nelson being on injured reserve for the first half of the season, it’s a good portion.
Let’s look at the areas that Berry has been missed.
Lack of versatility at safety position
One of the best traits about Berry is the fact that you can line him up anywhere and he can make a big play. He could play deep single high safety or down in the box to help against the run. He could cover tight ends, and he could move around the secondary to make a play on the ball. While many fans argue against Berry’s abilities to cover tight ends, last year was a big improvement for Berry in that department. If you didn’t think so, there is no denying his ability to shut down arguably the best tight end, Rob Gronkowski, in the league during week one.
Unlike when Berry was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, the Chiefs had versatility with their other safeties like Ron Parker, Husain Abdullah, and Tyvon Branch going into 2015. All three of those guys could move around the defense and in different positions. The Chiefs don’t have that luxury in 2017.
While Parker is still with the Chiefs, he is primarily the single high safety. We saw what happened against the Oakland Raiders in Week 7 when Parker wasn’t the deep safety. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton had him in coverage most of the night and it was a nightmare on the back end.
Safety Daniel Sorensen spent most of the night as that last line of defense and it cost the Chiefs in multiple plays. While Sorensen has some good playmaking abilities, he fails to recognize where help is needed in time and misses too many tackles. Something that cannot happen when you’re the last line of defense.
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Sorensen also is not nearly as capable of shutting down the run game by lining up inside the box. Time after time, we see Sorensen get pushed out of the play by offensive linemen and fail to get to the ball carrier. His best position is playing that spy safety that makes a play on the ball. We have seen Sorensen this year and last make some big plays, but I don’t trust him as the single high.
Second-year safety Eric Murray is playing his rookie year you could say since he didn’t have any significant time on the field last year. He’s also a converted cornerback to safety and still learning the position. Murray has had some good games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins especially, but he had a bad showing against the Oakland Raiders as well.
I still trust him to be able to cover most tight ends and possibly in a two-deep safety set, but I wouldn’t trust him as a single high or run stopper either. He still is late to recognize some plays like picking up Amari Cooper coming across the field in Week 7, where he took a bad angle turning a big play into a touchdown.
With Berry on the field, the Chiefs defense had someone that could line up anywhere and make a big play. He was one of the best run stoppers on the team in 2016 which is something that the Chiefs could really use this year. At the beginning of the year, I thought that maybe having inside linebacker Derrick Johnson back would help with the loss of Berry against the run, but he has yet to look like himself so far this season.
Berry lining up all over the defense made quarterbacks have to really keep an eye on him. It was a way the Chiefs defense could confuse quarterbacks, because you never knew where Berry would line up and the quarterbacks always start by looking at where the safeties are lined up.
Lack of big plays in 2017
The Chiefs defense was known for its takeaways a year ago leading the NFL with 18 interceptions and 16 forced fumbles. Five of those turnovers turned into 5 touchdowns. The Chiefs also recorded the first ever pick two on a two-point conversion attempt by the Atlanta Falcons, where Berry picked off the ball and took it back for two points.
The Chiefs bend-but-don’t-break defense relies on big plays and takeaways for it to work. That has not been a big factor as of yet. The defense has failed to get turnovers consistently and we often see players like cornerback Marcus Peters trying too hard to make a big play and making mistakes instead.
Berry was a big part of those takeaways with his four interceptions, two of which turned into pick sixes, two forced fumbles, and a pick two for a touchdown. Berry often tipped passes that end up being picked off by other secondary members. It’s safe to say that Berry not being on the field has hurt the defense in the takeaways.
The Chiefs defense in 2017 has 5 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles on the year. 3 of those interceptions came in the game against the Los Angeles Chargers and 2 of those forced fumbles came against the Eagles. The Chiefs have had a couple games this season with zero interceptions including against the Raiders last week.
The defense has been known to give up a lot of yards most games but it was the takeaways that made it okay at the end of the day. Without the consistent takeaways, especially in the red zone, the Chiefs defense is bending and breaking.
While the Chiefs defense still has leaders on the defensive side in Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston, but could they be missing the leadership of Berry? This question comes from all of the penalties in general in the first part of the season, but also with Peters consistency. Peters has found himself causing multiple penalties a game week after week and it’s becoming a big issue.
Peters also tended to play a lot better when Berry was on the field. They always met up after big plays and fed off each other in the secondary. While Peters is still playing well in coverage, he is trying to force turnovers instead of just making the play and causing too many penalties.
Lack of hard hits
One of my favorite things to watch is Berry laying out a receiver or running back. He brought that tough and hard-hitting attitude to the defense. The defense always seemed to feed off of his hits and carry it into their own play as well. Without Berry on the field, many questions if the Chiefs defense is getting soft.
While these are grown men playing a violent sport and they shouldn’t need someone else making a hard hit to do it on their own, players feed off of big-play momentum. It’s just natural. It’s like when you see the defense make a big interception on a key down and the offense gets a burst of momentum and carries the ball for a touchdown to win a game.
The hard-hitting is missed but I think his tackling, in general, is what is most missed at this point in the season. There is nothing more frustrating than watching a receiver or running back turn a play that should have been done on the first tackle but make it another 10 or 15 yards due to numerous missed tackles. Every week we are forced to watch missed tackle after missed tackle.
A trait that is very underrated and often not thought about is Berry’s ability to stop a 10-yard play from improving to a 20-yard play or a touchdown. When Berry makes a tackle after 10 yards we never thought about what he saved, we think of the defense not stopping that 10 yards.
Without Berry on the field, we are forced to watch those plays turn into bigger plays because of missed tackles. Some even by veterans like Derrick Johnson and Marcus Peters. Each time this happens, I think about all the times that we didn’t appreciate Berry making a tackle after a 10 yard or more play. Berry is, in my opinion, the best tackler on the Chiefs defense and without him on the field, plays allowed are getting bigger and bigger.
While some of you might argue some of these areas, I’m sure you can find your own areas that are hurting without Berry on the field. Then you will have the people who don’t like Berry who will argue probably every one of these points. All I have to say to that is if Berry was in instead of Murray against Oakland, the Chiefs win that game. That’s not saying that Murray is terrible and that game is all on him, but replacing Murray with Berry, in general, is a huge upgrade.
Hopefully Nelson coming back possibly this week or next from injured reserve will improve the secondary, but I still am forced to wonder what this defense could be with Berry on the field.