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AP Lab Film Session: the return of Eric Berry

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Eric Berry only played one half of football but was it enough for optimism going forward?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs surrendered another fourth-quarter lead that led to a loss, something that has happened in all three losses this season.

The Los Angeles Chargers were the latest team to victimize the Chiefs scoring all but seven of their 29 points in the second half of the game. The silver lining for Chiefs fans in a second-half collapse to a divisional rival when the Chiefs had a chance to lock up the first overall playoff seed?

Eric Berry.

Berry was finally back on the field and played the majority of the first half. He was on a strict snap count, which is why he was seen only on the sideline in the second half but moving forward, his time is expected to increase.

Beyond Berry’s specific playing time, the Chiefs allowed just seven points in the first half with him playing.

They also forced two turnovers and recorded four sacks, while he was on the field. I’m not here to say Berry was directly responsible for any and all of these happenings, but there was a stark difference with him on the field versus him on the sideline.

Whether it was his ability to make big plays on his own, the motivating leader role or the simple task of lining up players (who apparently for 15 weeks have had no idea what is going on), Berry’s impact was strong and immediate.

Sometimes the emotional high of having a leader, especially one as highly touted as Berry, can make the team as a whole rise to the occasion. Is that what we were seeing in the first half? Was the defense riding a high of having “their guy” back out there?

Eric Berry’s return

Deep coverage

This wasn’t the game for Berry to showcase the same range and deep coverage ability he had two years ago. The Chiefs did feel comfortable playing him a single-high safety in both Cover-1 and Cover-3 looks, but he wasn’t directly challenged.

Something the Chiefs tried a little differently this game was the depth of their safeties. Berry, in particular, was often playing 20-plus yards off the line of scrimmage. As the game went on and Berry had reached his snap count, other safeties were still playing at such crazy depths, so it lends one to think it was more a game-specific decision rather than one made out of physical limitation. Either way, it’s something to keep an eye on moving forward with the depth of Berry when he plays deep.

Let’s start off on a slightly negative note and then go up from there.

We are going to look at a play that isn’t on Berry to stop but one that you’d like to see an elite safety to make.

As the strength of the formation shifts with the running back motion, Berry’s assignment changes from a true “middle of the third zone” to a shaded zone to help match the three threats out wide on the same side.

Rather than playing than the hashes, he is playing more like a split, Cover-2 safety and shows that by his leverage on this play. Berry’s hesitation with the swing route and Philip Rivers pump faking toward it makes it so Berry doesn’t flip his hips completely and get vertical until the receiver is almost even with him.

Not to be lost, Steven Nelson is the man who is beaten and who is responsible for this big play. He gets caught sitting on something underneath rather than staying on top of the nine route and thus ends up getting blown by.

A safety playing in Berry’s role of this Cover-5 (the same thing as Cover-3 just with the deep zones sliding to the strength of an offense) shouldn’t be expected to get to this ball and they shouldn’t be knocked for it being completed. That said, an elite safety making top-of-the-line money is someone you’d hope would make this play.

Underneath coverage

Berry saw a good amount of both deep zone coverage and spinning down for underneath zones. Berry’s ability to play quick and physical football is amazing after such a long time off. The game comes at you faster when you spin down into underneath zones, there is more switching, more traffic and the quarterback can be harder to follow. All that wasn’t deterring Berry early on.

There will be some contention on this, but I believe this may have been Berry’s best play of the game.

He works underneath off the snap, essentially taking place as a deep hook defender, which we have to talk about real quick. This was a pretty unique coverage by the Chiefs that was well designed to handle the mesh concept that the Chargers threw at them. Both linebackers were in hook zones but appear to have man responsibilities if the running back and/or tight end break outside to their side. If the running back or tight end break inside, they were to be picked up by Berry as he comes out of his hook zone. So when the Chargers ran their mesh concept, Anthony Hitchens took the running back into the flat, Ragland stayed over the tight end to redirect him if he went vertical but released him when he broke inside and dropped into a hook zone which helps defend the drag from the opposite side.

Then we get back to Berry, who just processed the play on a different level than the Chiefs have seen from their safeties this year. While working forward, he identifies to the two crossing routes from the left side of the formation, then sees one crossing route from the right which is a dead giveaway for mesh. Berry picks his way through the traffic and shadows the tight end on the shallow cross staying over the top of him the entire time.

When the ball is being thrown, Berry is already closing and even if the ball isn’t dropped or knocked loose, it’s going to be a minimal gain thanks to his quick processing.

Run support

Probably the biggest weakness (if you really want to limit it to one) of the Chiefs safeties this year has been their lack of impact in the run game. A team doesn’t want nor should need its safeties to make a ton of plays against the run but some splash plays here and there or the freedom to know a guy can hold a run fit is huge. With less and less base personnel on the field for defenses, it’s that much more important to have guys on the back end capable of crashing down against the run and forcing stops near the line of scrimmage.

Here it is.

Down on the goal line, the Chiefs feel comfortable with only a single true linebacker on the field with Berry next to him. It’s a spread formation and the Chiefs match with their personnel, which is a good running formation for the offense, but Berry has other ideas. Allen Bailey and Derek Nnadi do a good job of holding their gaps while Berry isn’t influenced by the jet motion.

Instead, he is attacking with a tight angle off the offensive tackle, squeezing down the run lane and forcing the runner to cut inside if available. Even more so, Berry explodes through the contact, making the big tackle at the line of scrimmage showcasing his benefit in the run game.

Effort is there

A hot topic in some places about the Chiefs’ defensive play is the effort seen by some players, especially veterans and back-end players. It’s easy to find examples of defensive backs giving “C-” effort, or worse, going for tackles or showing a passive attitude towards attacking the ball or ball carrier. God forbid a blocker be between a defender and runner and the Chiefs defensive backs seem as likely to mail in the play as being blocked rather than trying.

For a refreshing twist, let’s watch Berry identify a run quickly, react quickly to come downhill and attack the blocker.

Just attacking the tight end as he tries to stalk block would be a big changeup for the Chiefs defense, but Berry’s ability to engage the block drive him backwards and into the running lane takes it to even another level. And the good play by Berry doesn’t end there.

While engaging with the blocker and knocking him off his platform, Berry changes levels to get free of the block and assists with the tackle.

Mental edge

Head on over to Craig’s defensive breakdown to get the full gist of just how much the communication and alignment of the team falls on Berry’s shoulders, even in his first game back. Beyond getting players in the right position, calling out shifts and coverage alerts, Berry was sharp from the first play of scrimmage on.

The Chiefs come out firing with a Cover-0 blitz, which the Chargers actually pick up pretty well, but the moment Berry (who has man coverage responsibilities on the TE) sees him set to block, he also blitzes.

Chris Jones quickly beats the tackle, getting the initial pressure, but Berry’s quick identification of the pass protection and his rush through C-gap is untouched and would result in the same pressure had Jones not already won. The physical part of the play wasn’t overly impressive but how quickly he identified his task to blitz was a fantastic read.

The bottom line: The Chiefs need Eric Berry

It’s pretty clear from watching the game that Berry is by far the Chiefs best safety and that may even be doing a disservice to how much better he is than the rest of the crew.

His ability to not only step back on the field but also be the Chiefs best (well, second best) defensive player is astonishing both in a positive and negative way.

The difference in approach to every play between Berry and Ron Parker, Eric Murray or Dan Sorensen was noticeable. The impact of that difference, regardless of talent gap, could be seen in just this one game.

Berry came out in this game, 15 weeks into the season and was the vocal leader as well as the on field general for a half of football.

That’s remarkable that a team played 15 weeks without him but still needed him to get aligned properly. Even more impactful than that was Berry’s actual play on the field.

Berry showed his classic playmaking ability in the run game, stuffing a few different run plays with quick identification and aggressive, downhill play this defense has lacked all year.

In coverage, it’s evident how he sees the game at an entirely different speed and level than the other safeties, as they are still retreating while he breaks on balls. If this game was even just a small hint of what is to come, Berry could really be the catalyst this defense needs going into the playoffs.

Rarely do safeties make a massive impact on a football team; they are mostly there to cover mistakes and try to limit mismatches, but that’s not Berry.

If he’s able to get up to 100 percent healthy, and he looked as skillful as ever, there should be no question that Berry will change the outcome of a game for the Chiefs at some point in the 2018 season.