Giants rookie Nat Berhe learning when to hit, when to stay

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Derek Moye (14) is Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Derek Moye (14) is tackled by New York Giants cornerback Jayron Hosley (28), strong safety Nat Berhe (34) and defensive end Damontre Moore (98) in the third quarter of a preseason NFL football game, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan) Photo Credit: AP / Peter Morgan

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It didn't take long for Nat Berhe to earn a new nametag.

"We called him 'The Missile,'" Giants safeties coach Dave Merritt said of the rookie last week after his performance against the Bills in the preseason opener. "That's going to be his new nickname because he is going to go in there like a missile."

Berhe liked the nomenclature - "There are so many other nicknames you can be called, I'm just glad it's a good one" - and has so far been living up to it.

So one of the things "The Missile" worked on this week against the Steelers was pulling up, avoiding contact, and saving his hits for when they matter. It will mean the difference between potentially having a Troy Polamalu-type career and a Bob Sanders one.

"I think being smart is the key," Berhe told Newsday on Monday. "Knowing when to take shots and when not to. This game I took a couple of shots at a couple of guys but I understood. If I saw a guy going down to the ground already I wasn't going to take a shot as I would have a couple of weeks ago. Trying to play smart. Sometimes you don't have to stick your head in there. Pick and choose your battles."

That can be difficult for a rookie trying to impress coaches. And for a player such as Berhe who has played that way his whole life.

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"You can look back on my high school film and it's the same exact way," he said. "It's really the only way I know how to play. Especially being under coach Rocky Long at San Diego State, the Aztec position, it was the kind of position where you had to throw yourself in there and make some really aggressive tackles. He wouldn't have it any other way."

That may have worked in high school and college, but at 6-foot and 194 pounds, it can be dangerous in the NFL. Berhe is not short, but he is not yet as thick as his teammates who play the same position. He's about 10 pounds lighter than Antrel Rolle and Quintin Demps and 20 pounds lighter than Stevie Brown. Just like young quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and now Johnny Manziel have to learn not to put their shoulder down on runs, to get out of bounds safely or slide to duck a hit, Berhe is trying to figure out when to missile and when to miss.

Berhe isn't all about flinging his body around the field. While he does come up into the box to play the run well, he's been playing more deep safety with the Giants, something he hasn't done since his sophomore year in college before he was converted to that "Aztec" position of hybrid linebacker.

"I'm getting used to playing deep thirds, deep middle player, the last line of defense," he said. "I'm getting used to getting out of the post, getting into my pedal and breaking on the ball. I've been getting really good at that and starting to really sharpen the edges."

He said he likes playing the deeper position.

"When I'm breaking out of the post, it definitely lets me line guys up," he said. "I can get a head start."

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