On game days last season, Eric Berry roamed the Chiefs’ sideline, pacing back and forth, the day-to-day nature of his heel injury stretching into weeks and then months. The pain limited him to street clothes in all but two games, leaving behind an obvious hole in the secondary.
A return to the sort of impact he had when healthy, the Chiefs ultimately determined, would require a change in personnel.
Albeit with some distinct similarities.
The Chiefs signed Tyrann Mathieu over the offseason, and it’s no coincidence he offers the passion and on-field aggression once displayed by Berry in their defensive backfield. But Berry played in just three games combined between 2017-18.
Which leaves Mathieu’s debut Sunday in Jacksonville — perhaps the most anticipated on the roster — feeling more like a significant addition for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo than a direct replacement.
“It will be my first time playing with my group, playing with my guys, in a live game that counts. There’s going to be a lot of different emotions, up and down,” Mathieu said. “I think it’s my job to balance the group, making sure everybody is focused on the next play.
“(And) a lot of people here haven’t necessarily seen me play in a Chiefs uniform. It will be important for me to go out there and get (off to) a fast start.”
A date with Jacksonville will be Mathieu’s first game action in more than three weeks. His preseason was cut short after three snaps against Pittsburgh by a slight shoulder injury. He insists the shoulder is fine now and won’t be a factor in the opener.
The preseason absence, though? Spagnuolo acknowledged wanting more snaps for his starting unit as a whole. Didn’t happen. But while he skipped game snaps, Mathieu has remained heavily involved in the practice rotation.
“We’ve put a bunch of reps into what we have and what we’re doing,” Spagnuolo said. “We’re not going to venture too far from that. We’ll put a couple wrinkles in for this team, because that’s what you do every week. He’s a pro. He gets out there. I think the guys trust him, too.”
And there’s one more point to the way the preseason unfolded: Mathieu skipped the Houston Texans’ exhibition games last season. Yet, as he quickly pointed out Thursday, he posted a career high with 89 tackles.
“I think ultimately it’s really about your mindset, your attitude, how you approach the game,” Mathieu said.
Those are key words with the Chiefs.
While Berry missed most of last season, his impact appeared elsewhere. Teammates say his voice still carried weight in the locker room. After warmups at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs gathered in a large circle of nearly 50 players. They surrounded Berry, who delivered the final message before kickoff on game days.
The Chiefs signed Mathieu in part to vocally lead a young defense, in addition to his more evident on-field impact. On Thursday, he offered a glimpse into how he plans to address his teammates Sunday in Jacksonville.
“It’s not about last year. It’s most certainly not about the Super Bowl — not today,” Mathieu said. “Just about going out there, playing one play at a time, playing fast, putting good quality reps on tape and playing for the guy next to you.”