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Eric Berry could be the Bob Sanders of 2018

In 2006, the Colts defense suddenly got better when Bob Sanders returned for the postseason. Could the same happen with Eric Berry?

Wild Card Round - Kansas City Chiefs v Houston Texans Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

See if any of following sounds something like a team — and a player on that team — with which you are familiar...

In 2006, the Indianapolis Colts finished the regular season at 12-4. With Peyton Manning at quarterback, the Colts had the NFL’s second-ranked offense and were in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

Wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne both had more than 1,300 yards on the season, and rookie running back Joseph Addai had racked up more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage.

In short, the Colts had an offense that would scare any NFL defense.

The Colts had a problem, though: their defense — particularly their rushing defense — wasn’t scaring anybody.

The team had finished the season ranked 23rd in points allowed and dead last in rushing yards allowed per attempt. This wasn’t a new problem, either. The team had entered the postseason with a substandard — if not outright terrible — rushing defense in each of the previous four years. Even in 2005 — when the team had finished second in points allowed — it had been 28th in rushing yards allowed per attempt.

Chicago Bears v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It seems ridiculous to say now, but as the 2006 playoffs began, there were already whispers that Peyton Manning “couldn’t win the big game.” He was 3-6 in the playoffs and despite being named an All-Pro in each of the past three seasons, he hadn’t been able to get his team past a conference championship game — and had gone one-and-out in four of his six playoff seasons.

But that season, Manning would win his first Super Bowl — a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears — and the Colts would become one of those Super Bowl outliers: a team that won a championship without a decent defense in the regular season.

It didn’t happen because the Colts offense simply went on a scoring rampage. The Colts scored 26.3 points per game in the postseason — slightly less than their season average of 26.7. But their defense allowed just 16.3 points per game — way less than the 22.5 they had allowed in the regular season. If carried over 16 games, that would have been good for a fourth-place ranking in the NFL that year.

The biggest statistical difference, however, was a rushing defense that allowed just 82.8 yards per game in the postseason — less than half of the 173 yards per game they had given up in the regular season. The defense also suddenly became opportunistic, notching 13 takeaways in four games — compared to 16 over the entire regular season.

You may remember one of those Colts playoff games. In the Wild Card, they faced the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs — despite being 6.5 point road underdogs in the game — figured they’d have a decent shot of beating the Colts with their All-Pro running back Larry Johnson against the porous Colts rushing defense. Johnson had averaged 111.8 yards per game in the regular season, but the Colts held Johnson to just 32 yards, and the Chiefs lost 23-8.

How did the Colts do it?

The conventional wisdom has always been that it was because safety Bob Sanders returned to the lineup.

In 2006, Demond “Bob” Sanders was in his third NFL season. After missing most of his rookie season with injuries, the former second-round draft pick from Iowa had a coming-out party in 2005, becoming an All-Pro as he and Dwight Freeney led the Colts defense to their best performance in years.

But in the 2006 season, Sanders missed 12 games of the regular season with a knee injury. Nonetheless, he managed to return for the playoffs.

There’s no question about it: Sanders was spectacular in four playoff games, with a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble and key plays in critical moments — including some in the Super Bowl game against the Chicago Bears.

Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

But it wasn’t just his own play that made a difference. It was the attitude he brought to the Colts defense when he was on the field. In an ESPN article published the following fall, a former teammate talked about it.

“He simply doesn’t accept someone not being physical,” says Ed Hinkel, who played with Sanders in high school, college and briefly with the Colts. “If you don’t make the tackle or hit the other team hard enough, Bob is going to get mad. He wants everyone on the field to know that he is there and his team is there.”

Then there’s this from a New York Times article previewing the Bears-Colts Super Bowl game, quoting Sanders about another thing that the Colts were doing differently in the postseason.

A fundamental tenet of football is that a team’s weaknesses in the regular season are amplified in the postseason. But the Colts embraced another football mantra — that there is preseason speed, regular-season speed and postseason speed, and the Colts at postseason speed have been transformed. “When the playoffs come, it’s a fresh new season,” Sanders said. “Your attitude definitely has to change.” The postseason Colts have run faster, tackled better and generally been more crisp in their execution.

In that same article, Jack del Rio — then the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had rushed for 375 yards in a 44-17 victory over the Colts earlier that season — said that the defensive turnaround in the playoffs wasn’t just about speed.

Del Rio estimated that the Colts played some version of an eight-man front — using a safety to help defend the run — about 70 percent of the time. But the Colts could not stop the run, even after committing an eighth man to the effort. Because that formation left only three defenders in the secondary, opponents’ runs were often long and damaging.

Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel told the Times that Matt Giordano — who had been Sanders’ replacement in the regular season — tended to make tackles four or five yards further downfield than Sanders did.

The return of Sanders helped the Colts stop opponents on first down, forcing them to pass on second and third downs. That allowed the Colts to play their preferred cover-two defense because of the speed of their pass rush. “Offensively, they can strike quickly, and if they play with a lead, they’re at their best because you have to pass,” del Rio said. “And they make life miserable for you if you have to pass.”

A Sports Illustrated article from October 2007 made another salient point about Sanders.

“Everybody looks at his physical attributes, the way he tackles and disrupts your offense, but you can tell he studies the game,” Eric Moulds, the veteran Titans receiver, says of Sanders. “In certain formations he was calling out plays. He knows exactly what you’re running, exactly what your tendencies are, and that’s the sign of a great safety.” At one point the Titans lined up in a formation that called for play action. Across the line, Moulds watched as Sanders appeared to recognize the play and signaled for the other defensive backs to adjust. “He put those guys in the secondary in the right situation,” Moulds says. “He ran exactly where the route was going to go. That’s a lot of preparation and knowing the game.”

If you haven’t caught on yet, the parallels between the 2006 Colts and 2018 Chiefs — and, of course, those between Bob Sanders and Chiefs safety Eric Berry — are striking.

As we were so eloquently reminded during the first half of Thursday’s 29-28 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Eric Berry is that same kind of player for the Chiefs. Thursday night’s game clearly demonstrated that Berry’s presence makes the Chiefs defense better. He doesn’t just “bring a lot of juice” to the other players. He directs. He reacts. He leads.

At this moment, whether Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is the right man for the job is of zero consequence. He is the defensive coordinator, and for the moment, he will remain. Right now, greened AP comments, Twitter hashtags, Internet petitions or even planes flying over the stadium aren’t going to change that because no NFL team is going to fire its defensive coordinator on the eve of a postseason run.

So take my advice: save your anti-Bob energy for a time and a place that it can matter.

With a playoff run before us — and regardless of what happens in the next two games, there is a playoff run before us — the only thing that matters is the here and now. If Eric Berry is what it’s going to take to make the Chiefs defense play to its potential, then the Chiefs need to do whatever it’s going to take to make that happen.

There are those who are angry Berry was limited to only 30 snaps on Thursday and wasn’t sent back out when the Chargers were threatening in the final minutes of the game. I’m not one of them.

Head coach Andy Reid was right: it’s very risky for a player who hasn’t been on the field for so long to play half a game, sit half a game and then return to action for a few plays. Putting Berry back in at the end of the game would have posed a serious risk to having Berry available in the postseason — where the Chiefs will need him most. The Chiefs were already in the playoffs, so it just wasn’t worth the risk.

So I’m down for whatever it takes to make Berry 100 percent for the playoffs. With Berry on the field, I don’t care if the Chiefs begin on the road in a wild card game or at home in a divisional game. What I care about is where the playoffs end — and as the Bob Sanders story shows us, Berry’s presence in the postseason could have a great deal to do with that.

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