It’s very easy sometimes to get a picture of a player in your mind and act as if that player will never change for better or worse. You assume players are studs and miss their slow but inevitable decline for a while, or you can watch a guy and be convinced that he isn’t the guy everybody else thinks he is, and be so resolute in that opinion that you almost miss his improvement. Players change year on year – they are not static entities. This is what happened to me with Eric Berry, who has had hype surrounding him since he entered the league, but has only just started to live up to that hype this season.
There is no doubting that his knee injury likely was the fundamental cause of much of his poor play since entering the NFL, but there had been precious little sign of the hyped-up guaranteed All-Pro on tape even before that injury, despite him earning Pro-Bowl spots in 2010 and later in 2012. 2010 was clearly his best season, but even then he was PFF’s 17th-ranked safety with a +7.1 grade, and was responsible for surrendering seven touchdowns in coverage. Good for a rookie? Sure. Pro-Bowl worthy? No chance.
His 2012 Pro Bowl spot was even more farcical as he was our 43rd-ranked safety with a +0.2 grade overall – almost exactly average – and was responsible for surrendering five TDs in coverage. That’s a dozen touchdowns attributed to Berry where he was the primary coverage defender (not counting plays where he was safety help on somebody else’s coverage) in his two Pro-Bowl seasons.
The truth is that Berry just hadn’t played that well so far in his NFL career heading into this season. Even at his best he seemed like a pretty limited defender – impressive in the box, essentially as an extra linebacker – but struggling when he was asked to cover, especially in man coverage against tight ends, something he was asked to do frequently from his alignment close to the line of scrimmage. I was so convinced that this was Eric Berry rather than the stud Pro-Bowler that other people talked about that it took a while to register his improvement in 2013, which has been remarkable.
He currently sits fourth in our safety rankings with a grade that eclipses anything he has managed over an entire season before (+8.7), and what has been most impressive is his new-found confidence and ability to cover, even against some of the stiffest competition.
One of the stories of the season has been the Browns finally unleashing tight end Jordan Cameron as a weapon in the passing game. He is second in the league among TEs with 596 yards over the first half of the season and has six touchdowns to go with those yards – all with the Cleveland quarterback situation. Before this season I would have said there was little to no chance that Eric Berry could cover Cameron ably and limit him to any kind of win for the defense.
Though Cameron notched 81 yards against the Chiefs, just 11 of them came against Berry. He did surrender a catch on the only time Cameron was targeted when he was primary coverage, but that isn’t to say that he wasn’t tasked with covering him during the game. On eight of Berry’s 36 snaps in coverage he was covering Cameron one-on-one, and on only one of those snaps was he beaten to the point the Browns targeted him. The rest of the snaps he was in close coverage and whether the play had been designed to go to the TE or not, Berry would have been in a good position to defend it. On only one other snap was he far enough away from Cameron – playing off-man as the TE ran a dig route – that there was a potential opening for a throw, but it wasn’t attempted.
To illustrate the kind of play that would usually leave Berry in the dust in the past take this example from early in the third quarter (11:59):
Berry is aligned over Cameron in press-man at the line of scrimmage. He jammed the tight end, preventing a clean release and then rode him down field as he got into his route. At the top of his stem Cameron gave Berry a little fake, but he wasn’t fooled and stuck like glue through the break as Cameron headed to the sideline. The two were so close together that they actually tangled feet and hit the deck as the play breaks down and quarterback Jason Campbell escaped to the left flat, but we can see how well Berry stuck to one of the more athletic receiving tight ends in the league – an area he has struggled with badly in the past, especially when asked to do so in man coverage with his back to the quarterback.
This is the improvement that has shot Berry up the PFF rankings and that I didn’t necessarily think he had in him in the past.
Still Doing it in the Box
Of course when that coverage skill is combined with his ability to play in the box and around the line of scrimmage we start to get something pretty special. Take this play in the fourth quarter (9:50):The Browns are going to run off left tackle with a pulling guard coming from the backside to lead through the hole. Eric Berry, playing well in the box as a linebacker is the player that draws the pulling lineman, which would ordinarily be a win for the offense, but he has other ideas.
When the play started, Berry read it well and instead of coming down in the middle of the gap where he would be an easy target to be blasted out of the hole by a lineman with a head of steam, he tucked himself in tight to the bodies on the line of scrimmage, throwing off RG Shawn Lauvao’s angles entirely. Berry was able to shoot inside and underneath Lauvao who couldn’t adjust in time, driving right through the block to hit the running back like a missile for a loss in the backfield. These types of plays are the hallmark of Berry’s game – not simply impressive read and reaction time, but the instincts to shoot in with leverage and a tight angle to avoid the block that the Browns had counted on blowing the play wide open.
The play that caught my eye the most in the game though was the very next play, one that on the face of it wasn’t that impressive. With the Browns up against a 3rd-and-30, Berry was able to stop a screen for a 7-yard gain. Just looking at the play description that seems pretty run of the mill, until you see what was facing Berry when the running back received the ball in the flat:
He found himself staring at not one but two linemen coming at him like a large wall to cut him off from the running back. Often one lineman is enough to take out a defender, but two of them both aiming at the same target here from either side would usually be curtains for his ability to influence the play. From the point this picture is taken you would expect Berry to hit the ground and at best force a cut from the running back towards help coming from the inside. You certainly wouldn’t expect him to beat both blockers and make the stop, but that’s exactly what he did.
As the first blocker dives towards him to cut him down Berry goes airborne, leaping over the block entirely, and somehow regaining his body control enough to land and fight through the block of the second lineman all in the same movement. The running back went from having a wall of blockers in front of him to suddenly having Eric Berry powering through the outside shoulder of his last remaining blocker and a horde of Chiefs defenders chasing the play down from the inside.
Though the Browns would have been unlikely to convert this play anyway, regardless of what Berry did, the fact that he was able to single-handedly take out a pair of screen blockers in one fluid movement was incredibly impressive.
Against Cleveland Eric Berry was able to display the full spectrum of his skill set, a skill set that has only this season become fully rounded as he is now both more experienced as an NFL defender and fully over the effects of a serious knee injury.
He has two Pro-Bowls to his name already, and the hype of a perennial All-Pro in some circles, but this is the first season that Eric Berry is playing at an exceptionally high level, and he is doing so as a complete defender, not just a guy who can impress in the box but remains a liability in coverage. This is the Eric Berry I wasn’t convinced existed, but he is proving me wrong in 2013.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam