On Thursday night, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry was having the kind of game that has led him to five Pro Bowls and six First-Team All-Pro lists over the previous seven seasons. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around in what became a 42-27 upset win over the New England Patriots in the 2017 NFL opener, Berry had amassed seven tackles -- four of them solo, one for a loss -- and his efforts in coverage had helped hold Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in check, with just two catches on six targets for 33 yards.
But in that fourth quarter, again with Gronkowski his assignment, Berry came up limping, then sat on the turf. A cart took him off the field, and replays of the injury hinted at what was confirmed by Chiefs head coach Andy Reid on Friday: Berry had torn his Achilles tendon, and his season is now over.
Eric Berry has a ruptured achilles tendon, per #Chiefs coach Andy Reid.- BJ Kissel (@ChiefsReporter) September 8, 2017
This is not the first time that Berry has suffered a season-ending injury, with the safety having torn his ACL during the 2011 season. His return in 2012, at age 24, had Berry exhibiting no signs of slowing down; though he had only one interception that year, he had 10 passes defensed and a combined 86 tackles.
This isn't the first time Berry has faced adversity. And it's not the worst thing he's dealt with. In 2014, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma after complaining of chest pains following a game against the Oakland Raiders. He made a full recovery from that life-threatening illness, appearing in all 16 games for the Chiefs a season later and again putting forth a Pro Bowl-caliber performance, with two interceptions, 10 passes defensed and 61 combined tackles.
It's not unreasonable to think that Berry will bounce back from this latest injury and have yet another return-to-form when he plays again, in 2018. But, as Reid said on Friday, "You're not going to replace Eric Berry with another Eric Berry," and that fact could prove to have a major impact on Kansas City's 2017 season.
The Chiefs currently have two backup safeties on the roster: Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray. Sorensen has the most experience, having been with KC since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2014. Including Thursday's game, he's appeared in 42 career contests but has only started one, with his best year coming in 2016 when he served more as a linebacker-safety hybrid in response to Derrick Johnson's injury. He had three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), six passes defensed, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, a sack and 54 combined tackles. Murray, meanwhile, is a former cornerback converted to safety. Drafted by the Chiefs a year ago, he had a fumble recovery and three tackles as a rookie and currently seems like the least likely of the two to take over Berry's job, at least immediately.
No matter the solution the Chiefs decide upon, there's no doubt that whoever replaces Berry in the first-team defense will be a downgrade. Berry was Pro Football Focus' top-performing safety in Thursday's game, earning an 86.5 grade -- an 86.0 in coverage and 81.5 against the run -- on his 70 snaps played. Ron Parker, the other starting Chiefs safety had a grade of 74.9 and Sorensen, who played 48 snaps and is the presumed starter in Berry's stead, had a grade of just 38.8, with a 46.9 score in coverage and a 35.8 against the run. Barring the Chiefs making a trade or snagging one of the few starting-caliber free agents remaining on the market, they will have to stand pat with the safeties they currently have on the roster. And that will mean having to make adjustments on defense to compensate.
The good news is that the Chiefs pass-rush appears to be back in shape, which will take some of the pressure off of its pass coverage in the secondary. Now healthy after two years of knee issues, linebacker Justin Houston led the charge against New England, making two of the team's three sacks and four of its six quarterback hits. And the Chiefs have adapted in the past; in 2014, with Berry missing much of the season (he also dealt with an ankle injury before his cancer diagnosis), Kansas City still finished with the second-best defense in points allowed and seventh in yards.
Further, the Chiefs offense looked more than sharp in the season opener, with quarterback Alex Smith completing 28 of his 35 pass attempts and throwing four touchdowns, while rookie running back Kareem Hunt had 246 total yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. If they can keep that up, any struggles on defense can easily be minimized.
There is no doubt that a physical element of the pass defense will be lost without Berry, as will an emotional, mental element, since he is a key part of the team's on-field and locker room leadership. But this is not the end of Berry's time in Kansas City. He signed a six-year, $78 million deal in February after playing on the franchise tag in 2016, and its structure is such that the Chiefs won't consider moving on any time soon. And he has already proven more than capable from returning from injuries -- and worse -- and picking up his impressive career where it left off. In the long term, Berry should be OK.
In the short term, though, the Chiefs will have to figure out how to do the same without Berry prowling the defensive backfield, disrupting the Gronkowskis who try to come his way.