KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eric Berry never saw the hit coming until it was too late.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ Pro Bowl safety was ranging to his right, trying to defend the goal line in last season’s opener, when Steve Johnson lined him up in his sights. The Bills wide receiver swooped in with his shoulder first and cut Berry down at the knees with a devastating block.
It was perfectly legal, but that didn’t matter much to Berry as he was lying on the turf at Arrowhead Stadium. Berry tried to keep playing, but it was all in vain: He had torn the ACL in his left knee, effectively ending his season.
Berry tweeted in the offseason that he wondered whether Johnson intended to hurt him, in truth a natural question amid the controversy of the Saints’ bounty scandal. He’s backpedaled since, saying the tweet was in jest, and he’s sidestepped the media all week. But in a statement made in April, Berry indicated that it still weighed on his mind: “You can look at the tape and make your own opinion about that.”
Johnson has always denied that he was trying to take out Berry’s knee, more than once trying to apologize for the hit. The former seventh-round draft pick said again this week, with the Chiefs scheduled to visit Buffalo on Sunday, that he was merely making an important block early in the game.
It was nothing more than that, Johnson insisted.
“However he feels is however he feels,” Johnson said. “I already said it before that I’ve never been a dirty player. I never try to take somebody out. I know the work put in to get where he is and where I am. I’ve said it before, but it’s enough already.”
Johnson isn’t dishing rhetoric, either.
He was a relatively unheralded wide receiver when he was coming out of Kentucky, a program hardly known as a football factory. But through sheer grit and determination, he’s emerged as one of Buffalo’s biggest weapons, coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
He’ll be even more invaluable now that the Bills are playing without injured running back Fred Jackson and wide receiver David Nelson for now.
“I came from the bottom, you know what I’m saying? I know the grind and the struggle to get where I am now,” Johnson said. “Everything that’s been said and everything that happened, it happened. It’s over with.”
Berry’s path to stardom was much more direct.
He was the fifth overall pick of the Chiefs out of Tennessee, and started every game his rookie season. He made 87 tackles, picked off four passes and even returned one for a touchdown, putting together the kind of year that made his first Pro Bowl trip a certainty.
So when he was lost for the season in Week 1 last year, it was little wonder that the Chiefs defense was ripped apart by Buffalo (41-7) and Detroit (48-3) the first two weeks of the year.
“It’s another game. That was last year,” said Kansas City safety Kendrick Lewis, who is expected to miss his second straight game Sunday with a right shoulder injury. “Eric’s with us now, he’s healthy, and we need to attack this game.”
Both teams are feeling a sense of urgency after Week 1 defeats.
The Chiefs were spanked 40-24 by Atlanta, a performance not altogether different from the way they played against Buffalo last year. The Bills lost 48-28 to the New York Jets last Sunday.
“We have a completely different team than what we had last year,” Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said. “Last year was last year, and they did a great job coming in here, but their team is different and we’re different and now it’s about going out and competing this year.”
New teams? Sure. New year? Absolutely.
But that doesn’t mean there’s going to be hugs and handshakes when the Chiefs and Bills take the field on Sunday, particularly when Berry sees Johnson for the first time.
“Last year is last year, and this year is this year,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. “We need to focus on this year and trying to be better and win the game.”