Sam Mellinger

Chiefs safety Eric Berry will be back soon, so let’s talk about that

Chiefs’ Eric Berry encourages teammates before they face Chargers

Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, recovering from an Achilles injury, encourages teammates on the field before the team’s game Saturday against the Los Angeles Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium.
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Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, recovering from an Achilles injury, encourages teammates on the field before the team’s game Saturday against the Los Angeles Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium.

Here’s something new: Eric Berry will almost certainly practice this coming week for the first time in more than 100 days. The jokes about seeing Sasquatch and getting better every day without actually getting better can end, sort of.

Because he’s still unlikely to play in the Chiefs’ next game, at Oakland on Dec. 2, according to a team source.

But barring a major setback, his return is now officially a matter of when, not if, and the team he will return to is so much different and better than the one he last practiced with.

The Chiefs have pole position for postseason homefield advantage and are the betting favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Done right, and perhaps with a little luck, the return of Berry solves the Chiefs’ single most glaring weakness and would represent the most significant in-season talent addition for any AFC contender with the possible exception of the Chargers’ Joey Bosa.

Because, well, this is weird to say out loud ...

*whispers*

(the Chiefs would be undefeated if Eric Berry had been healthy all season)

*clears throat*

OK, where were we? Yes, yes, Eric Berry. The spots where he can help are numerous and obvious but for now lets focus on the fourth quarter against the Rams.

The Chiefs led by four until a six-play, 75-yard drive that exploited the Chiefs’ safeties, which is the weakest position group on their roster. The big play was 36 yards downfield to Robert Woods, who was double covered until he juked Eric Murray to the outside, creating five yards or so of separation for a pass inside the 10.

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Then, on third down, Rams quarterback Jared Goff saw Daniel Sorensen in man coverage on tight end Gerald Everett, who was open on a simple in-route for a clean touchdown.

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Hypotheticals don’t necessarily work like this, but that’s a fourth-quarter lead change on the back of two plays that Berry would have made much more difficult. But wait, there’s more!

After the Chiefs regained the lead, the Rams took the ball with under 3 minutes left and went back to work on their opponent’s biggest weakness. After Orlando Scandrick’s near-interception, Goff threw his final three passes to Sorensen’s coverage, all of them completions, the last one a 40-yarder to Everett.

Before the snap, Goff saw Ron Parker creeping toward the line of scrimmage after a receiver went in motion, a tell that the Cover-2 look was a disguise. Sorensen would be without help along the right side. Goff knew where to throw.

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These plays are merely the most consequential and recent examples of the void left with Berry’s absence. They are not presented to demean. Murray, Parker, and Sorensen are good teammates but are being asked to cover problems above their talent level.

It’s similar to the end of the Patriots game, when Josh Shaw was left one-on-one against Rob Gronkowski. That resulted in a 39-yard pass inside the 10. After a kneeldown, the Patriots kicked the winning field goal as time expired. Berry defended Gronkowski well in last year’s season opener before the Achilles injury.

When problems arise, the natural inclination is to find someone to blame. With the Chiefs’ defense, that’s often meant looking at coordinator Bob Sutton. There are many things to fairly criticize with him, but if we care about fairness and context it’s worth remembering what he’s working with.

Even at full strength, the Chiefs’ safety group is a weakness. Armani Watts was finding his way before a groin injury ended his season in October. Berry is one of the best in the league, when healthy. That’s a lot to make up for.

If, to use the parlance of the times, the NFL is Waging A War Against Defense, then cornerbacks are the collateral damage. They’re spread too far out, left to cover too long, and generally penalized more than ever before.

So it may surprise you to know that among 117 cornerbacks who have played at least 20 percent of their team’s snaps, Steven Nelson ranks 16th, Kendall Fuller 26th, and Orlando Scandrick 42nd in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

That group is not great, but it is good enough, a fact that’s often been muddied by how poor the safeties have been.

Berry would change all of that. He is a rare talent, with the smarts and ability to fix a wide range of problems.

Most to the point of the plays we’ve mentioned against the Rams and Patriots, he’s the Chiefs’ best defender against tight ends. But he can also play with range and is a problem near the line of scrimmage in both coverage and run support.

He’s generally not great as a classic centerfielder — that’s part of why the Chiefs were so interested in the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas — but he’s better there than any of their other current options.

That’s the kind of diverse talent that makes the other 10 on the field better by proxy, and none of this accounts for the leadership of the locker room’s most respected man — he still does the huddle talks, for goodness’ sake, despite last playing a full game in 2016.

Some disclaimers. The Chiefs expect Berry to need up to a month of practice and games to work his way back to comfort, and even in the optimistic view a return to the height of his powers is uncertain at best.

But that would be in time for the playoffs, and the Chiefs don’t need perfect. At this point, 80 percent of Berry would be an upgrade. Maybe less. His injury has been something of a cloud over an otherwise thrilling season, with possibilities stretching to the Super Bowl.

His return is now imminent, which creates a tantalizing new reality — the best Chiefs team in more than a decade welcoming back one of the best players in franchise history to help fix its biggest current weakness.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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