I was nervous about Eric Berry's first game back.
For starters, one never knows how a player will look after an extended break due to injury. Especially when that injury is one that could rob a player of speed. ESPECIALLY when speed is one of the signature traits of said player. What if Berry had returned and lacked his signature explosion? Yikes.
Another concern from my end was the effect Berry would have on the defense. Let's face it, the Chiefs have been playing wonderfully on that side of the ball this season. The secondary has held up well despite multiple injuries and facing the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Philip Rivers. It's been a great run. There was some fear that introducing a new element into the defense might upset the balance, regardless of that element's talent.
There's just no way (following a game that's been much-debated by Chiefs fans) I WASN'T going to review every one of Eric Berry's defensive snaps. I just had to. There's not a choice involved here. See, I'm not satisfied with guessing or making assumptions based on limited information. I have to gather all the information before I can come to a conclusion.
When speaking to people immediately following the game (based on my own viewing of the broadcast) I felt like Berry had an OK game, with a few missteps (such as allowing a big gain to Chris Johnson). I went into the tape at least a bit concerned that Berry was creating as many problems as he solved.
Yeah, I was wrong.
At some point over the last couple seasons I referred to Eric Berry as The Wolf. Those of you who have seen Pulp Fiction know what I'm talking about. For those who don't, The Wolf solves problems. The Wolf cleans up messes other people made. And at the end of the day, no one on the outside looking in even recognizes the work The Wolf does. Because The Wolf is so successful that people don't even realize a crisis was averted.
That was Eric Berry against the Jets on Sunday. He solved a ton of problems.
First and foremost, the Chiefs played a ton of zone coverage against the Jets. I imagine this is to compensate for the presence of Mike Vick, who remains one of the fastest quarterbacks in the NFL. Playing zone allows defenders to keep an eye on Vick and account for his presence.
Which brings me to an important point; when you (and I) watch NFL games on broadcast television, there's really no way of knowing what's going on in the secondary the vast majority of the time. The camera focuses on the ball, and the types (and success / failure) of coverage remains a mystery outside the occasional replay from another angle. All we see is the end result. I'll come back to this later.
In the meantime, how did Eric Berry do? Well, unlike a cornerback, with a safety it's tough to parse coverages into successes and failures. Especially when (as was the case Sunday) the coverage is almost exclusively zone. So instead of doing it that way, let's talk about some general impressions. Then it's time to talk about how Mr. Berry played the role of The Wolf Sunday.
Berry jumped right back into the role of playing all over the field. Where he was at on defense seemed to vary with the game situation. Berry played Spur (hybrid LB/S) and more traditional safety earlier in the game. Later in the game, as the Chiefs took a two-touchdown lead, Berry wound up playing single-high safety while Ron Parker was moved to corner (a move I hate, by the way. Parker plays the ball well, but plays receivers poorly. He belongs at free safety).
First and foremost, for the crowd claiming it was Berry's presence that led to more passing yards by the Jets, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. Berry played a solid game on his end, generally helping bracket receivers deep (when they got that far) and being in the right spot at the right time. Of the "big" plays given up by the defense, only one (no, not the one you're thinking) could be placed partly at Berry's feet; the long pass down the right sideline to Harvin late in the game.
Here's a screenshot of Berry as the ball is being released.
Individual screenshots don't present a complete picture of a play. But what you're seeing here accurately shows the dilemma Berry is placed in. Harvin is running a go route against Sean Smith, which is normally a big mismatch. However, Smith is currently BLANKETING Harvin (he made a very poor play on the ball).
In the meantime, a receiver is coming more open across the middle of the field. This screenshot was taken right as Berry hesitated, waiting to see where the ball was going before making his break. From the way he holds up he clearly is worried about the route across the middle. Once he saw the ball traveling toward the sideline he broke that direction, but too late to help Smith prevent the completion.
That play was much more on Smith than Berry, who needs to be sure of where the ball is going before making his break. Had Berry gone toward the sideline and the pass went across the middle it's a giant gain. Perhaps Berry could have recognized where the throw was going, but in this case the cornerback was in good coverage. Berry made the right call by waiting to be sure. It was a bad situation for a safety; the quarterback made a throw to the covered player instead of the open one. That's tough to predict.
Outside of that play (and one other), Berry did a very good job in a relatively limited role (sticking with zones). Of course, for the sake of objectivity I need to point out one play where things COULD have blown up in Berry's face, but didn't.
In the first quarter, Berry was placed in man coverage against a tight end, who faked an inside route then cut outside. Berry allowed his hips to turn and began moving inside on the fake, to where by the time Vick released the ball this is what it looked like:
That's a rough play, and it's a good example of a point I made a few weeks ago when discussing Phillip Gaines; statistics that reflect results when a secondary player is targeted are far from complete. Here, Berry isn't targeted by Vick, so it goes down statistically as a neutral play. Of course, had Vick made it to that progression he would have had a wide open tight end. Again, a rough play by Berry, who needs to keep his hips open.
That's it. That's the entirety of Berry's performance in pass defense I can criticize. Outside of that he played a solid game. And that's where we come to The Wolf. Because the Chiefs defense secretly had some problems against the Jets (a good running team, which is a weakness of ours without DJ and Mike DeVito. Sigh...).
When I wrote about Phillip Gaines, I mentioned there are plays that don't get recorded as statistics but make a massive difference in the flow of the game. Berry made multiple such plays on Sunday, only no one noticed. People rarely notice prevented problems.
The first such play came on the very first series for the Jets, and it's one you probably kinda/sorta/barely remember. On 3rd and 7 Vick takes off right, looking to pull an Alex Smith and scramble for the first down. He ends up a yard shy and the Jets go 3-and-out.
If you go back and re-watch that play, Eric Berry is the reason Vick doesn't reach the first down marker. Both Berry and Abdullah see Vick take off toward the sideline and give chase. Here we see them nearing the end of the pursuit:
Abdullah has no chance at preventing the first down from happening, having taken a slightly poor angle and then scrambling to adjust to Vick's speed (which is something Vick has made a career out of. He's REALLY fast). Berry didn't take a good angle either and had to adjust. At this point (when the screenshot is taken) a guy with Vick's speed seems pretty certain to get the first down.
However, he doesn't get there. Berry demonstrates the unique burst that's made him stand out when compared to almost every other secondary player in the league and pushes Vick out of bounds a yard shy of the first down.
Obviously, allowing a first down this early in the game would not have spelled doom for the Chiefs. But a 3-and-out on the first possession is always a major momentum builder, and it was one the Chiefs capitalized on with a touchdown to go up 14-0.
There was a problem (Vick in the open field sprinting toward a first down). The Wolf solved that problem. You won't see that go into the stat sheet as anything other than a regular tackle, but it was a play few safeties could have made. Berry's speed made it possible, and this play was a difference-maker.
The second play was more obviously a big play. At the end of the third quarter the Jets were threatening to make the game a close one. Chris Johnson takes the handoff around the left side and makes Ron Parker miss (not a strong tackle by Parker, who was in a tough spot against a fast player). The o-line has blocked well and Johnson is in a footrace to the end zone. Much like Vick, Johnson is a player whose existence in the NFL has depended on winning these footraces (all he's ever really brought to the table is speed).
The guy he's in a footrace with? Eric Berry.
While Berry isn't in a terrible spot (that would be Husain Abdullah, who is absolutely not going to catch up at this point), he's looking at covering about as much ground as Johnson is. And Chris Johnson, make no mistake, is still really, really fast.
If you put any other safety in the NFL (outside of Harrison Smith, who is a very Berry-like player) in this situation, he's going to lose the footrace to the goal line or be incapable of delivering a hit that keeps Johnson out of the end zone. In Berry's case, he's got it covered.
As it turns out, Johnson (seeing Berry coming and getting a little twitchy) steps out of bounds at the 3-yard line. However, had Johnson not stepped out, Berry still had it covered. He manages to beat Johnson (albeit barely) to the goal line and delivers the kind of hit we've grown accustomed to as Chiefs fans, knocking Johnson out of bounds just before he can get the ball over the line.
This ended up being a gigantic play for the Chiefs. Four plays later, Vick couldn't find Percy Harvin in the end zone and the Jets turned the ball over on downs.The Chiefs maintained a two-touchdown lead, and the Jets never REALLY made me sweat again.
Here we have another play that shows up as "tackle" on the stats sheet. It's unfortunate there isn't a "Wolf" stat. There was a massive problem created by a missed tackle at the line of scrimmage (not trying to bury Parker, but it is what it is), and Berry solved it by closing and forcing Johnson out of bounds. Without Berry, the Chiefs are now up by only seven and the game becomes much more dicey. He gave the defense a shot, and the they responded in a huge way. Big play.
This wasn't the only missed tackle by Parker (who, again, I really like at safety. He belongs back there, not at cornerback) where Berry went all Mr. Wolf. With 8:35 left in the fourth quarter, the Jets got to midfield and seem to have one last shot at making a game of things. Berry is playing single high, being a true "safety" valve for the defense to prevent a big play. Parker is on Harvin (a tough cover), who comes open on a route across the middle of the field.
And I mean WIDE open, as Parker has given a huge cushion (very likely he was ordered to do so to try and prevent a big play). Here's the screenshot as the ball is being released:
As you can see, Berry is already breaking toward the play, seeing where the open receiver is and where the ball is going.
At this point, nothing is going to prevent a completed pass. At this point in the game, though, a relatively short (8-10 yards) gain across the middle of the field isn't the worst thing in the world, especially since it will keep the clock moving. It's the type of play defensive coordinators are conceding when they have corners play off the line of scrimmage.
However, things very nearly go terribly awry (I've always wanted to use that word in a column. Check another one off the bucket list). Parker overruns a tackle on Harvin, who makes a nice change-of-direction-and-spin move that only a guy with his combination of quickness and strength can make. Harvin spins out of Parker's grasp and is about to cause major problems in the open field.
Dat Wolf, tho.
Naturally, the player who has completely wrapped Harvin up and is about to slam him to the turf (Harvin tried to spin out. Nope) is Berry.
I showed the broadcast version here in order to get a closer look, so you can see that Parker has lost contact with Harvin at this point and he'd be gone if it weren't for the human torpedo that slammed into him.
However, the All-22 view shows even more what a great (and important) play this was by Berry.
What this overhead view emphasizes (with that super-big green circle) is the MASSIVE amount of open space Harvin has to work with once he shake's Ron Parker. Harvin is a nightmare in the open field. I'd be willing to put good money on him scoring a touchdown with that kind of open space, particular with plenty of Jets players down the field available to get in the way of defenders.
For the second time in the second half, Berry makes a play that keeps the Chiefs comfortably in the lead, while covering up the mistake of a fellow Chief and preventing a disaster.
The Wolf. Solves. Problems.
The last play we'll talk about today is one I've alluded to several times. It represents everything I've talked about in this article. The fact that a broadcast viewing doesn't give you the information you need to understand secondary play. The fact that first impressions are often wrong. And finally, the fact that Eric Berry is absolutely the Wolf, and anyone claiming otherwise is ... well ... wrong.
Remember that big pass to Chris Johnson in the third quarter? You know, the one where Berry got beat in coverage and gave up a 26-yard catch? No you don't. Not correctly, at least.
Let's start at the beginning.
The play is already in motion here, with Tamba Hali doing Tamba Hali things and attempting to eat Mike Vick. Eric Berry is at the bottom of the screen and is drifting to the sideline. While you might think he's in coverage on Johnson, Berry's movement makes it clear he's heading toward the outside zone, where another Jets player is about to start on a wheel route (after he stops staring at Vick, at least).
The other arrows are to indicate where I believe (based on repeatedly watching the play and observing their movements) other Chiefs defenders are supposed to go in their zone. The inside linebackers (one of whom is Abdullah) get sucked WAY up, seeing what looks like Vick about to take a sack.
Let's jump forward a fraction of a second.
Vick makes an incredible play and manages to shake off Hali. Abdullah, seeing that Vick isn't rushing and has reset his feet, is frantically trying to backpeddle (he'd shot forward a moment sooner, thinking Vick would scramble). Berry has moved to the sideline and is watching the circled Jet receiver. Mauga appears to be looking to rush.
And most importantly, Ron Parker (deep safety circled) is moving toward a receiver that has (from all appearances) left his zone of coverage. Even from the All-22 view in a screenshot, you can see Parker isn't looking at Chris Johnson, who is entering a zone that absolutely should be covered by himself or Abdullah.
We go forward another fraction of a second.
Johnson has a ton of open room now. Parker has drifted even further to his left. You can see Berry turning his head and seeing Johnson. In the meantime, an enterprising Jets offensive lineman has taken advantage of Abdullah backpeddling and is giving him a shove that will send him sprawling to the ground.
Berry is no in no-man's-land. He's covered his outside zone, but with Abdullah getting shoved and Parker drifting to the middle of the field, there is absolutely no one to cover Johnson, who is doing everything he can to get Vick's attention short of throwing a rock at him. Vick has seen him and the defense is in serious, serious trouble.
Here's a screenshot as Vick makes the throw.
By all appearances the Chiefs are absolutely toast. Parker (who is circled in green here because I'm lazy and won't take the time to correct the mistake) is way out of position and wouldn't be able to run down Johnson for another 30-40 yards, if at all. Berry is in trail position and sprinting toward a zone that seemingly wasn't supposed to be his to try and stop a play he shouldn't be responsible for.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, two very important things happen. First, Vick puts a little too much air under the ball (it's likely he was startled at how open Johnson was and was almost too careful with the throw) and it hangs up for a moment, which makes Johnson slow down (though he is still running forward when he catches it).
The second thing is that Eric Berry had seen what was happening before the throw was made and was already moving toward the open zone. His awareness was enough that he caught Johnson moving into a space that SHOULD be covered and took off after him.
We've already talked about Berry's closing speed. That combined with his "head start" and Vick's slight underthrow lead to this screenshot.
Berry is all over Chris Johnson at the 40-yard-line and brings him to the ground. The green arrow is no longer a threat, and now just represents what would have been happening with Berry's presence on the field.
Ron Parker has outstanding speed, but it's at VERY best a toss-up as to whether he can prevent a touchdown on that play. Johnson caught the ball in stride (though, again, he'd had to slow down somewhat) and was going to have a head of steam toward the goal line. And as stated, Johnson remains one of the fastest running backs in the NFL.
Instead of a touchdown or shot in the red zone with a ton of momentum, the Jets have to settle for a nice gain and a drive that leads to no points (due to the stop by Berry at the goal line highlighted above).
A problem presented itself (blown zone coverage by either Parker or Abdullah, it's impossible to say for sure without knowing the call). That problem was solved by Eric Berry recognizing what was happening and making a great play to stop the bleeding.
And Chiefs fans everywhere (who didn't see the first 90 percent of the play unfold in the secondary) blamed the guy who solved the problem for "allowing a big play"
It's a thankless job, being The Wolf.
Welcome back, Eric Berry.