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Eric Berry beat cancer and dominated the NFL in the same damn year

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Chiefs safety Eric Berry missed all of last season fighting lymphoma. This season, he's the back to being the best safety in the NFL. Stephen White and Danny Kelly take a closer look at what makes Berry so good.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Danny Kelly: Eric Berry has been one of the best and most inspiring stories in the NFL this year. After missing last season to receive treatment for lymphoma, he was cleared to resume football after only nine months. He's stormed back this year to once again become one of the best safeties in football. Berry was voted into the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in his career last week, but for those out there that see the Pro Bowl as a popularity contest or a name-recognition game (which it is, sometimes), I know we both think it's pretty important to point out that Berry's performance this season definitely makes him deserving of the honor -- it's no sympathy vote based on his story.

When I first put on the tape to find a few plays that illustrate Berry's talent and performance this season, the thing that struck me initially is that it's sometimes kind of hard to find him on the field immediately. He's constantly moving around -- playing in the deep middle, up in the slot against a receiver or tight end, up in the box against the run, and a little bit of everything in between. Honey Badger gets a lot of love for his versatility and that's well deserved, but Berry does a good amount of moving around too, and I saw him play zone, play man coverage, support the run and do some blitzing to boot. He's an integral and dangerous piece of the Chiefs' elite defense, and he's a fun player to watch.

What stood out to you first when you put on the tape?

Stephen White: I have been a big fan of Eric Berry's ever since he arrived at my alma mater, the University of Tennessee, so I know what it looks like when he is healthy and playing up to his potential. With him coming back from lymphoma and the chemotherapy treatments, I figured it was going to take him a while to get back into the kind of phenomenal game shape he used to be in and get back to being the physical presence he has always been.

Berry is never going to run a 4.3 in the 40, but his game speed has always been phenomenal. That also came with a surprising amount of physicality in a guy who isn't overly big at 6'0 and around 210 pounds. I reasoned that he would get his speed back relatively easily, so the game speed wouldn't be a problem. At the same time, however, I thought the physicality might take a little bit longer after all his body has been through over the last 12 or so months.

Sure enough, Berry started off the season kind of slow, as did just about everybody on the Chiefs roster. You could see his confidence rising week after week on film, and it appeared he got his groove back right around the Pittsburgh game which, not coincidentally, is when K.C. started its current win streak that has it headed to the playoffs after a 1-5 start. Now, if there was one play that represented Berry being all the way back "right," I would have to say it's the ridiculous play he made in the first Chargers game.

Everything about the tackle he made on Chargers wide receiver Stevie Johnson was just a thing of beauty. The break from 10 yards away, the violence of the collision with Chargers left tackle King Dunlap who tried to block him on that smoke screen and, yes, the tackle itself that limited Johnson to just a 3-yard gain even though it should have been the perfect play as the Chiefs blitzed off the edge to that same side.

Just a phenomenal play by a guy who has made quite a few in his career. That's the Eric Berry I am used to seeing out there.

Danny, what stood out the most about that play to you?

Danny: Absolutely loved that play, too, and the thing that stood out the most to me was his closing speed. I think you're right that even if he's not running a 4.3 on a timed track, the dude has great play speed on the field. I get the pleasure of watching one of the fastest safeties in the NFL, Earl Thomas, every week, and one of the things I love about Earl is that once or twice a game, he'll come flying in from off the screen and lay a dude out like a heat-seeking missile. Berry shares that exact same trait, and it's one of the biggest things about his game that I love.

In that play above against the Chargers, the first thing you see is that his play recognition is almost instantaneous. That's something that a lot of announcers and analysts will call "instinct," but really I like to call it play recognition. He sees what the offensive line is doing, he sees the running back release into the flats, and at just about the same instant that Philip Rivers is dumping it off, Berry is breaking on the ball. If he'd have waited until Rivers' pass was away, it would've been too late. The game happens so quickly that an immediate break on the ball is absolutely crucial here. After that, I just love his effort and speed in ducking under and taking out the lead block by the tackle before he blows up what could've been a big gain.

That play in particular is probably the best example of it, but I actually had a few others that I picked out that demonstrated the exact same thing. Take this play for example:

Berry drops down at the last minute to match up with the Broncos slot receiver Andre Caldwell here. When the ball is thrown, he's a good five yards away from his man. Nonetheless, he breaks on it hard and decisively, and when Caldwell spins in the air to catch the ball and land with his body facing downfield, he gets Berry all up in his chest plate with a fierce hit. He dislodges the ball, and it falls incomplete. There's no way Caldwell shouldn't have had that pass with the amount of separation he had initially, and I don't think many safeties could've broken so quickly on that while delivering such a big hit.

One more play came to mind when thinking about Berry as a heat-seeking missile from centerfield.

This play was from the Chiefs' second matchup with the Chargers. Berry lines up 15 yards deep in a 3-deep coverage scheme, and it's an inside handoff to Melvin Gordon. Gordon actually makes a nice read and cuts the ball outside when Frank Zombo (the outside linebacker to the play side) loses contain. Normally on a play like this, Gordon would pick up at least five yards before any of the defensive backs to the play side even see him coming. They're still marking receivers downfield and once they do turn to see that a run is coming, those receivers have gotten good position on them to block downfield. That's when, out of nowhere, Berry comes screaming in at the speed of sound and finishes Gordon with a nice, fundamental tackle. I absolutely love plays like this. Decisive, physical, fast. He takes a good angle on the pursuit and foils what looked to be a nice gain coming up for Gordon.

What else did you see from Berry in your tape study?

Stephen: Those are all outstanding plays that you point out, and they show Berry at his versatile best. Just running around and making plays no matter where they line him up. What really stood out to me on a consistent basis, however, was how Berry tried to finish off ball carriers who maybe were already tied up with one of Berry's teammates. We both know there are some guys who will run all the way to a pile, but rarely actually get involved. Berry is like the exact opposite of that. He is always looking to make sure a guy doesn't get any second effort yards on his watch.

That drive to get in on plays led to some crazy productive games for him this season. The Pittsburgh game, for instance, from my count he had 11 combined tackles to go with an interception. Many of those tackles were for gains of five yards or fewer too, so it's not like he was just cleaning up other guys' messes all day either. I had him for nine total tackles in the first Chargers game as well. Sometimes having your safety making that many tackles can be a sign that your front seven is getting whupped, but with Berry it was just a sign of how active he was in those games. That's how you keep from having a lot of breakout plays against your defense, also. How many times have we seen a guy look like he was going down, but end up regaining his balance and breaking off a big run because the rest of the defense expected him to fall? I didn't see many, if any plays like that break against the Chiefs in the games I reviewed for this conversation.

Are there any other plays that Berry made in the games you reviewed that you felt were particularly impressive?

Danny: I was impressed with Berry's coverage skills when I was watching the all-22, particularly in that they use him everywhere, but a couple more plays stood out to me were in run support. As you said, he's not a big dude relative to most NFL players, but he can lay the wood. More importantly, he diagnoses really well and takes great angles to the football.

Take this play, for instance.

Another play that literally made me go "wow" when I watched it was this one:

After following the receiver in motion and passing him off to the corner, Berry just runs right through the line to get a tackle for a loss on fourth down. Maybe he just got lucky or maybe it's a great example of play recognition -- he knew it was probably going to be a run in that situation but to slice through like that and hit the runner in the backfield -- pretty great play.

Definitely think that Berry is one of the best safeties out there and he's a really fun player to watch. He deserved his Pro Bowl nod and probably deserves the Comeback Player of the Year award, too.