As he dragged Robert Griffin III to the cold, icy turf in Washington on Sunday, Chiefs safety Eric Berry found himself in the increasingly familiar position of figuring out how to celebrate a sack, one he admits he didn’t think he’d be in much before the season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Berry not only leads all NFL safeties in pass-rush attempts with 60 — 12 more than the next closest player — he also leads his position in sacks (3 1/2 ) and quarterback hurries (10) and is second in quarterback hits (three), solidifying his status as the rare quarterback hunter at an increasingly coverage-oriented position.
“I didn’t know I’d be doing this much (blitzing),” said Berry, who accumulated a grand total of two sacks during his first three seasons with the Chiefs. “But I kinda just embraced it, figured out what my role was. And like I do in life, I tried to get as much info about it so I could get better at it.”
Thus, despite spending much of his professional career as an in-the-box player, Berry — who said he also didn’t blitz much during his sterling three-year college career at Tennessee — has found it necessary to seek pass-rush guidance from teammates Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. The duo is one of the league’s best at outside linebacker when it comes to rushing the passer, and Berry said neither has been shy about lending advice during practice.
“During special teams, those boys always do handwork, always do different drills,” Berry said. “I used to always watch them at practice and how they did their hands and stuff like that. Then, there was just one time” around the Jacksonville game “where Tamba was like ‘Berry! Get over here, you’re blitzing now.’ So it was just like ‘Come on over here and get your pass rush moves (in).’ That was really helpful.
“And … Justin, I always talk to him. He’ll see something on film and come to me like ‘Hey, you might wanna try to do this rather than that.’ They’ll tell me how the tackles set (up) and stuff like that each week. So I think it’s pretty cool.”
Perhaps that’s why Berry, who is prone to showing enthusiasm on the field, opted to celebrate his sack on Sunday by clasping his hands near his waist and rocking back and forth, a fitting emulation of the injured Houston’s sack dance.
Of course, while the 6-foot-3, 258-pound Houston — who has been practicing on a limited basis this week — might have used his blend of power and speed to get that sack off the edge, the 6-foot, 211-pound Berry was all speed and smarts, as he lined up just inside the left tackle, patiently allowed the blockers to become occupied and swooped in like a hawk to haul Griffin down for an 8-yard loss.
“One thing he has is speed and suddenness, and that’s important when blitzing — especially for him, because he’s coming from depth a lot of times, and without speed, sometimes the quarterback just gets rid of the ball,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He has the ability to sort of slither between blockers, and that’s just a natural instinct or trait that he has that makes him more effective as a blitzer.”
For this, Berry makes no apologies; his speed is the only advantage he has against linemen who typically outweigh him by 100 pounds. All of his sacks this season have been created by his speed, whether he sprinted through the line untouched or hawked down the quarterback from an angle.
“That’s the thing that Tamba said really helps,” Berry said. “If you’ve got speed, like, you don’t really need all those moves.”
However, as Berry has found out at other times this season, that’s not always the case. Sometimes things get a little cluttered at the line of scrimmage and he has to be crafty, lest he suddenly find himself in a losing battle against a behemoth offensive lineman.
“What he’s saying is what we talk about all the time — you can’t expect every blitz to have a free run, where there’s no blockers,” Sutton said. “We wish it worked out that way, that would be awesome, but it doesn’t. So we talk about ‘Hey, when you bring pressure, it always comes down to one on one. There’s no chip blocking, there’s no double teams, none of that. You’ve got to beat a man one on one.”
Berry does have some tricks up his sleeve to do just that. Aside from the occasional pass-rush moves he works on with Hali and Houston, Berry — a basketball fan — has also been incorporating a flashy Euro step, of sorts, into his repertoire.
“That helps out a lot getting around linemen,” Berry said. “Yeah, I use that a lot.”
Berry was perhaps inspired by the way players like Chicago point guard Derrick Rose and San Antonio shooting guard Manu Ginobili tortured opponents with the move on the hardwood, though he admitted the one he breaks out on the gridiron on Sundays isn’t as violent as Rose’s.
“Nah,” Berry said with a laugh. “Mine is a little more finesse.”
Still, Berry playfully boasted that he had the best Euro step on the team — “Because I brought that here,” he said with a laugh — and it’s worth noting that he did use the move on his way to beating San Diego left tackle D.J. Fluker for a sack a few weeks ago.
Slick moves aside, however, Berry knows he has plenty of room for improvement as a blitzer, which Sutton expects to come with time.
“The more you do something, the better you become at it,” Sutton said. “When (you’re) an edge blitzer, when (you’re) an inside blitzer, there’s all these elements that are happening … there’s a lot of traffic problems there.”
Problems Berry, the Chiefs’ talented fourth-year safety, is learning to navigate, one blitz at a time.
“Guys have been helping me out a lot,” Berry said, “and it’s been working.”