Eric Berry ends the debate

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Through four weeks, KC Chiefs safety Eric Berry has continued to do exactly what he did to end last year: be the best safety in the NFL

I've talked about Eric Berry before.  Actually, I've talked about Eric Berry a lot.  Usually, when I have it's mostly been to discuss how much of an animal he is on the field. And when I do, most people agree with me (yay for you guys!).  However, there's always been a small but vocal minority who insist that Eric Berry isn't all that and a bag o' chips with dip.  Usually the line is something like...

"Berry is a liability in coverage"

"Berry is basically a glorified linebacker"

"Berry just makes flash plays but isn't consistent"

"Berry is only good against the run"

Take any combination of those four statements and you've got the prevailing argument against what I've been saying for awhile now: that Eric Berry is not only a great player, he is in fact the BEST player at his position in the NFL.  Yeah, I know, you don't believe me.  That's cool.  I'll change your mind in the next 3000 words (unless I don't.  In which case you're incorrigible and hat's off to you for standing your ground in the face of all evidence).

Eric Berry is not only a great player, he is in fact the BEST player at his position in the NFL.

Let's get the easy part (run defense) out of the way and then move onto the part where I blow up the (somehow still existing) myth that Berry is poor in coverage.

Run Defense

I really doubt I need to spend much time convincing you that Eric Berry is the best safety against the run in the game today.  Really, I doubt I even need this section.  But for the sake of that one guy in the back who is jumping up and down and saying, "Nuh uh" I'll go through the motions.

First of all, take a look at stops and tackles for loss in 2011.  Berry destroyed every other safety in the league in both categories.  What's a stop, in case you've never read that term before?  A "stop" is a PFF stat that is defined as a "solo tackle that constitutes an offensive failure, including sacks."  Basically, it's a play where a guy, by himself, derails whatever it is the offense is trying to do.  I don't think I need to explain what a tackle for loss is, right?  Right.

That's just the statistical side of things, though. And honestly, I've talked about that at length elsewhere with the exact numbers all posted for you nice and tidy (look it up if you must.  Or stick around for the good stuff).  The real tale is, as always, in the tape.

And if you spend half an hour watching the Chiefs defense play you can see the impact Berry has on the run.  He gets to the ball faster than almost any player in the league and hits like he weighs 260 pounds. Additionally, you rarely see him lose a ball carrier once he's made contact.  He wraps up and brings them down.  In other words, he hits like Bernard Pollard but doesn't tackle like Bernard Pollard.

In other words, he hits like Bernard Pollard but doesn't tackle like Bernard Pollard.

But really, there's not much of a debate here.  Even those who have scoffed at the idea of Berry being a top safety have admitted he can be a force against the run.  Their argument has always centered around the idea that Berry is some kind of liability when it comes to opposing teams passing the ball.

It sounds like a good argument.  After all, this is a passing league, and a safety who isn't good in coverage is a major weakness.  The problem with this argument is that it's... well, it's not true.  And hasn't been for some time.

Pass Defense

This is where the whole problem of confirmation bias and people being stubborn becomes a problem.  Eric Berry definitely struggled in coverage early in his rookie season.  This led to a great wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of many Chiefs fans and national media members, who then labeled Berry a liability in coverage and moved on.

The problem with labels is they stick.  Even when they shouldn't.  So when Berry stopped struggling in coverage later in his rookie season (including a very good game in the playoffs), no one was paying attention.  Then Berry got hurt, and came back clearly a step slow and hesitant in the early part of 2012.  So good ol' confirmation bias kicked in and people said, "see, told you he sucks in coverage" and moved on.

The problem with labels is they stick.

They didn't come around when Berry played absolutely lights out in coverage over the last eight games of the season last year, whether you judged by completion percentage allowed, yards per catch, or passes defensed (before you argue, go check the stats, please).  Nope, they'd made up their minds.  And hey, they could always claim cherry-picking, right?

Well, it's a new year.  So if Berry is a liability (or even average) against the pass and just somehow "got lucky" (or something) for eight games in a row to close out last year... things should have equalized back to his "normal" state by now, right?  I mean, could someone legitimately argue that Berry has been lucky for 12 STRAIGHT GAMES?

Well, I've got bad news for those who don't want to believe that Berry is the class of the NFL at his position... that's the stance you'll have to take.  Because this is what Berry has done in coverage (where he's been quite a bit of the time) through four games:

(Note:  all "ranks" are comparisons to all safeties that have played 75 percent of their teams' snaps)

- 18 "targets" with 8 completions allowed (44.4 completion percentage)

Berry is actually 5th in the league at safety in times targeted.  Of course, he's only allowed 8 of those targets to be completions.  That percentage puts him at 4th in the league in that category.  Just out of curiosity, is 4th best out of 48 players a liability?  Or average?  Nope, it's exceptional.

But is he allowing for big plays when they DO catch the ball, you ask?  I'm glad you did.

- 6.8 yards per catch allowed

Yep.  6.8 YPC.  Which puts him 5th in the NFL in that category.  So in other words, he rarely allows the guys he's covering to catch the ball, and even when he does they don't get far.

- Longest play given up: 16 yards

This pretty much goes hand in hand with what we were just talking about, but it's worth mentioning Berry is top 10 in this category.  In other words, he hasn't given up big plays like many other safeties (especially ones targeted as often as Berry has been).

- QB Rating when thrown at:  28.5

C'mon, admit it, that's impressive.  It's also 4th in the NFL.

So take a look back at where Berry sits in those stats: top 5, top 5, top 10, top 5.  And that's all while having the ball thrown his way a lot more than most safeties have been forced to deal with (thus raising the risk of one "big play" throwing off his averages).

Basically, if you are a believer in statistics at all, there's no possible way to look at what Berry's done in coverage this year and say he's anything less than stellar.

But let's say you're not a numbers guy.  You want to see pretty pictures!  Fine.  Then look no further than this last week's game against the Giants. Berry made a pair of coverage plays that ended a drive for the Giants and helped us start putting the game out of reach,

0:22 left in the 3rd quarter.  Giants have 2nd and 10 on their 45-yard line.

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So here, we see Berry lined up as basically a linebacker in a 4-2 (oh you, Bob Sutton!).  He's clearly got his eye on the Giants' backfield and David Wilson.

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With the ball snapped, Wilson gives every appearance of helping the Giants LT block All-Everything pass rusher Tamba Hali.  With that development seemingly in process, Berry heads toward the quarterback, doubtlessly intending to engage Eli in a spirited debate on the importance of positive body language.  This is what the Giants want, because...

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Oh, you sneaky, sneaky Giants!  Wilson was playing a lil' game o' possum and is now getting ready to go out for a pass.  Wilson is either Eli's first read or they're engaged in some oddly-timed staring contest.  Either way, you can see Berry hitting the brakes on his blitz so fast I'm surprised there's not an audible screech (remember Looney Toons?).  He's not fooled for even a second.

This play relies on misdirection and an over-aggressive safety/linebacker not recognizing what is going on.  Here, that's not happening and this play is already over.  The Giants just don't know it yet (also, look where Mike DeVito and Tamba Hali  are in relation to Eli.  This will come into play in a second).

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Here we go forward about 1 second, to after the throw has been delivered.  I've circled Berry and Wilson for... some reason (mostly to just play with shapes).  All right, I have a bit of a reason; to emphasize how Berry has closed the space between them and is now right in Wilson's grill about to make the hit as the ball arrives.  it helps that the throw is garbage, but Berry is all over this play.

Just a quick throwaway point... remember how I said to look at Hali and DeVito (you really should.  It was about 3 sentences ago)?  Look where they both are now.  RIGHT in Eli's face.  Remember when we didn't have a pass rush?

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The ball bounces off Wilson's leg and it's an incomplete pass.  Regardless, as you can see here Berry gave Wilson a solid shot and (of course) wrapped him up along the way.  Even if the ball had been caught, that's a minimal gain because of Berry's recognition, closing speed, and tackling.

Of course, that's just one play.  What about when he's actually in coverage?  Doesn't he get totally burned and stuff by tight ends?  I mean, I've heard that on ESPN so it's gotta be true, right?  How about we go forward one play, to 3rd and 10?

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Here we see Berry lined up in single coverage against Brandon Myers, a very solid tight end.  Now, if I'm to believe what I've been told by those who say Berry struggles in coverage against TE's, this is a major mismatch.  Uh oh!

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So now we know Eli Manning watches ESPN too!  He's rolling right and looking to go to Myers.  Berry is all by himself on an island in coverage.  Except he's RIGHT on the hip of Myers.  I'm pretty sure if you stood that close to someone on the street they'd either hit you or call the cops.  That's how you know it's good coverage (when it'd be a sexual harassment suit at the office).  Well, Myers is bound to shake him if he cuts, right?

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So you can see now (circled) that Myers has made his cut into an out route.  Berry remains right with him (it's kind of like having elite athleticism helps him in coverage, isn't it?).  Eli has made the throw and is looking to place it to the outside where Myers can get it but Berry can't.  Which you'd think would work, except...

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Berry accelerates, dives, and prevents the completion on what was a pretty decently thrown ball by the younger Manning.

A decent route by Myers, a solid throw by Eli, but it's still an incomplete pass because of coverage that's about as close to perfect as it gets.

How much time to do I have?  A little more... All right, how about a glimpse of Berry when he's playing deep?  Is he making an impact there?

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Whoa, Bob Sutton DOES use our base defense sometimes!  Berry is circled.  Look to Dunta Robinson (top of the screen).  Eli is going to take the snap and roll right.  Berry, recognizing that there's no need for him in center field, will take off and remove any chance Eli has of throwing to Dunta's guy, who runs a comeback route.  Eli is forced to go with the shorter throw (which MAY have been the first read anyway), but had Berry not recognized the play this ends up entirely different.

I'm just going to throw the pictures up all together.  Watch with each advancing frame where Berry is relative to Dunta and the receiver Dunta is covering.  The receiver actually comes free relative to Dunta (the man had a rough day), but by the time he's even making his cut Berry has already zeroed in and is closing fast.  Eli made the correct decision to go with the short throw, as any throw to the Dunta's (and now Berry's) receiver would've been a pick and maybe even a TD return.  The last shot shows where Berry is while the ball is in the air, which lets you see just how doomed any throw to that receiver would have been.

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As you go through that by each frame, you can see that Eli had only one receiver to go to because of Berry's incredible closing speed.  There are not many safeties (or players) in the league that can close out like Berry can, and it created a situation in which the QB's options became limited.  Poor coverage (well, that's not entirely fair.  Maybe not "poor," but certainly not good) by one of our CB's didn't matter, because Berry recognized where he needed to be and got there quickly.

Additionally, had the eventual target managed to somehow shake free of his initial tacklers, Berry was right there to prevent the play from becoming a big one.

None of that is flashy, and none of that will ever show up in a stat sheet.  But THAT'S what you need out of a safety.  Someone who can not only cover individuals, but someone who can help the corners and allow for a certain amount of leeway in coverage ("safety," if you will) to where even if a corner isn't where he needs to be, it's not a disaster.

So What?

So why am I beating you over the head with stat after stat and picture after picture when it comes to Eric Berry in coverage.  It's simple... the idea that Berry is poor in that area is the "norm" opinion right now.  In order to break through already-set opinions, it becomes necessary to present so much evidence that it's impossible (without being unreasonable) to change those opinions.

So now you've seen the stats.  You've seen some examples.  And you can now safely, and without fear of recrimination, say with confidence "Eric Berry is great in coverage."  The stats back it up.  The film backs it up.  The only thing that doesn't back it up is the lazy analysis of people who are operating off very old information and have never bothered to check back and see if they're still right.

You always knew Berry is great against the run.  And now you know he's great against the pass.  He is one of the pieces that makes our defense special.  To make a long story short, now you know why Eric Berry is the best safety in the NFL.

(For fun Chief stats daily, follow me @RealMNchiefsfan)

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