Eric Berry said his mind was made up before Sunday’s game that he would hand the ball to his mom “when” he got it. “When” is bold talk for a safety, but not bold enough in this case. Berry, in fact, got the ball twice, once on a pick-six, the other on a pick-two — an interception on Matt Ryan’s two-point conversion pass that he returned 100 yards to the end zone to create the final margin in the Chiefs’ 29-28 win over the Falcons.
Earl Thomas had played in 106 straight NFL games through just a couple weeks ago and was presumed invincible. Then last Sunday, he was entertaining retirement minutes after breaking his leg. His teammates and head coach have disabused the thought, but Thomas hasn’t. He told ESPN’s Josina Anderson, “The crazy thing about it is that I'm so at peace with everything.”
One player briefly lost football to cancer and is grateful to have it back (and much more, of course). The other has played the game about as consistently, as fast, and as instinctively as any one player can, and days removed from the initial shock of a bad injury hasn’t become any less wistful about what would be an accomplished career even at 27.
They are both safeties, and that may not be a coincidence.
* * *
The safety position has shouldered more responsibility in NFL defenses as offenses have opened up over the years. The free safety has become a pressure point, a position under constant siege, a job that sometimes requires dowsing multiple fires at once — at times playing as a cornerback, linebacker, giving deep help, slot help, rushing the passer, stopping the run.
The Seahawks and Chiefs have had two of the best defenses in the NFL for several years running. The Seahawks are still elite — ranked first in points allowed, eighth in yards, and fifth by DVOA. The Chiefs defense is actually rather humdrum by overall standards — ninth in points, 29th by yards, 11th by DVOA — but it leads the league in forced turnovers, which has made it effective.
The schemes are different, especially in the defensive backfield, but both use their safeties as linchpins. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll rarely takes his defensive backs out of a zone Cover 3 shell, where Thomas is a centerfielding single-high free safety behind aggressive corners. He is the “weak spot” in the sense that when his teammates press, it opens vertical seams that often leave him to account for multiple receivers at the same damn time.
Thomas needs to seem like he’s in multiple places at once — and he does — in large part because he knows what’s coming better than anyone. This is Mack Brown describing Thomas.
"Earl was so good that he could leave his responsibilities and go after the football simply because he instinctively knew what the quarterback was trying to do," said former Texas coach and current ESPN analyst Mack Brown. "By the third game of his first season, we knew he wasn't going to just be good. He was going to be great."
Thomas can do everything, and does. He’s not just a near-perfect defensive fail safe, he hawks the ball, and hits about as well as any free safety in the league.
Thomas doesn’t do everything like Berry does everything, however. Berry has evolved from a player who was more comfortable at the line of scrimmage into the Voltron that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton wants him to be. In 2014, Sutton admitted there isn’t really any distinction between “free” and “strong” safety in his defense. Both safeties needed to learn every role, and in the last two years Berry’s coverage skills have vastly improved.
Berry lines up everywhere on the field for the Chiefs. He is one of the most versatile players in the NFL. SB Nation’s Stephen White pointed out this play of Berry snuffing out a dump-off pass to a running back in the flats that should have been successful last season. See if you can stop watching it.
I can’t stop watching it. It’s incredible. And it happened because Berry — lined up 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage — knew when to stop being a stopgap and start using his powers to become the most disruptive player on the field.
That play is the perfect example of the safety’s dichotomy. He can’t play with total abandon, or else he will get embarrassed. He can’t sit back, because then plays like the one above will gash the defense over and over. He has to be the most wary player on the field, and still somehow the most decisive. Safeties have to be well-studied, and still be able to flip the override to their heat-seeking lizard brain.
They have to shut off every pathway of doubt or mental function that takes even a moment of processing, because being either too or aggressive or too passive will lead to a butt-naked mistake. Safeties have the most responsibilities, and thus more ways to screw up than anyone else.
Look at how Thomas reacted on the field to a broken leg.
“He said, ‘That was a hell of a break by me.’ That’s what he said,” Sherman recalled. “He said, ‘That was a hell of a break,’ and it was. It was a perfect break. He said, ‘I read that.’ That’s Earl being Earl. He wasn’t talking about the injury at all. He was saying that he read that play, that’s the play he was waiting on and he made a play.”
That’s a man who was so absorbed in his play he couldn’t even think about his season-ending injury. Now look at how Andy Reid (and pretty much everybody) talks about Berry.
“I hate saying you expect that from him, but he just wills himself like no other,” coach Andy Reid said. “You saw that when he defeated cancer; you saw it here.
“That’s just his mentality. It’s unbelievable.”
“Will” is maybe the most important attribute someone like a safety could have. Safeties know as well as anyone that everything can fall apart in a moment — and more than that, they are somehow sustained by their vulnerability. Their worlds can cave in and the best ones will be stronger for it.
And that might explain how Berry could be declared cancer free during training camp and come back to earn a legitimate Pro Bowl nod. And how Thomas could seem so collected about the worst injury of his career. They’re not afraid to be vulnerable. They’ve accepted anxiety and fear and learned to weaponize it.