When the Chiefs’ front office decided to let Kendrick Lewis explore free agency after last season, defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas knew it would create a hole in the team’s secondary.
Despite Lewis’ struggles last season, both in coverage and as a tackler, his intelligence and vocal leadership were repeatedly praised. He was respected for having one of the highest football IQs on the team, and before plays, he often yelled out what play the other team was about to run, made defensive calls and helped his teammates get lined up correctly.
“One thing Kendrick did for us, he made coaches look like we were very intelligent,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of stuff we might not have covered and it shows up in the game, but he could make on-the-field adjustments for us.”
Still, football is equal parts physical and mental. And after he was beaten on a number of plays toward the end of last season — including the game-winning touchdown catch by receiver T.Y. Hilton in the Chiefs’ devastating 45-44 first-round playoff loss to Indianapolis — the Chiefs made the decision to move on from Lewis.
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That leaves the brunt of the vocal responsibility in the secondary to holdovers such as fifth-year pro and three-time Pro Bowler Eric Berry, who has apparently embraced the challenge.
“Eric has really taken it upon himself to be that guy,” Thomas said.
Berry, who was taken in the first round by the Chiefs the same year they made Lewis a fifth-round pick, said he learned a lot from his former friend and teammate, who signed with Houston this offseason, where former Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel is the defensive coordinator.
“Just alerting the defense with certain plays, looking out for certain things and anticipating the next call so when we break the huddle,” Berry said. “I actually talked to him (Lewis) not that long ago and that’s the main thing, just expecting things before they happen.”
Lewis spent much of his time at free safety, lined up 15 to 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage, so his vantage point was often a little better than Berry’s, who often played linebacker in the Chiefs’ nickel package or was matched up on tight ends.
Berry won’t be abandoning his strong safety role soon — second-year pro Sanders Commings and veteran Husain Abdullah are battling for Lewis’ old spot at free safety. But through eight offseason practices during organized team activities, Berry has spent more time playing two-deep and single-high coverage, a prospect that intrigued him at the outset of camp.
“It’s exciting just because that’s what I’m accustomed to doing all my life,” Berry said. “But like I said before, wherever my team needs me, that’s where I’m going to be at. Whether they have to swap me and Husain, or if they have to move me somewhere else and move him somewhere else, I think we’re all prepared to be wherever we need to be.”
There’s glory to be gained in playing single-high coverage days. Seattle star Earl Thomas, whose speed and range helps him excel as the Seahawks’ last line of defense, excelled at the position during his team’s Super Bowl run last season.
Berry, by the way, was taken seven spots ahead of Thomas, who went fifth overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.
“They respect each other,” Emmitt Thomas said. “They came out the same year and that was a tossup when they came out in the draft, which one was going first. Eric won out here, but Thomas has had a great career so far and so has Eric.”
While Earl Thomas is lauded for his athleticism — he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2010 — Emmitt Thomas said Berry, who ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at the 2010 combine — certainly isn’t lacking in that department, despite suffering a torn ACL in 2011 that wiped out most of his second professional season.
“Eric had the knee operation and came back and hasn’t missed a beat,” Emmitt Thomas said. “All we’ve got to do is train his eyes.”
Learning to play better in space is the biggest obstacle standing in Berry’s way to becoming a compete football player. Berry, 6 feet and 211 pounds, turned in a strong fourth season in which he racked up 84 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks and three interceptions.
“He’s very explosive, he’s strong, he’s quick, he’s just got to be more patient,” Thomas said. “That’s the thing we’re asking him everyday in practice, be more patient.”
It would be a mistake, however, to overlook the growth Berry has already made in that department. When asked how far his star pupil has come in that department since his rookie year, Thomas grinned.
“A long … long way,” Thomas said. “He’s always been a physical player, a tough player, but right now he can understand sets and formations and personnel, so he’s come a long way.”
The good news for Berry is that while he may have more responsibility in 2014, he won’t have to do it alone, especially when it comes to the vocal part.
“We don’t want to have to overload him because he’s such a physical player and we want him to be able to make a lot of big plays back there,” Thomas said. “So hopefully Husain or even Commings, whoever wins that position, will be able to team up with him and double team that.”