By Matt Hamilton
There are perhaps no two bigger pet peeves for evaluators who watch countless hours of film than players who receive too much credit from the fans and mainstream media, and players who receive too little. The problem is that often times the differences in players are just too difficult to quantify. Even certain positions that lead to more in-depth quantifiable analysis, such as the quarterback position with the existence of the QB rating and countless other statistics, there is still so much that is unaccounted for. Evaluators must account not only for efficiency and production, but also for how a player is used and what he is being asked to do.
That being said, statistics can be an incredibly useful jumping-off point, which is why the dearth of adequate defensive statistics is so mind-boggling and defensive players are so much more susceptible to being over or underrated by the general population and general managers alike. In a league in which contracts are in large part structured based on both past and projected statistical production, shouldn’t its statistics be more representative of players’ actual abilities?
Seeing the forest (or the tackle) for the trees
This realization is what launched me into a two-year study of linebackers and the scrutiny of one of football’s most fallible statistics: the tackle. For those who aren’t aware, tackles are recorded by spotters in the press box during games and are rarely subject to correction. As a result, tackles are often misidentified, or when in doubt, are given to the team’s most prominent tackler. Over the past two seasons I couldn’t begin to count how many tackles were falsely credited to players like Rey Maualuga, Ray Lewis, and Luke Kuechley at times when they were literally 10+ yards away from the play.
The “Eye in the sky”
The only way to accurately keep track of tackles is through the use of coaching tape. The other major issue with tackles is that there is nothing (other than tackles for loss) to quantify one tackle from another. Shouldn’t a tackle 1 yard from the line of scrimmage be separated from a tackle that occurs 15 yards downfield? These realizations led me to the creation of what I call “Impact Tackles.” I defined an impact tackle as such:
- A tackle resulting in a gain of 3 yards or fewer that does not result in a 1st down
- A tackle that prevents a conversion on 3rd or 4th down
- A tackle for loss
- A sack
- A tackle that forces a fumble
After establishing the criteria, I watched every play of every middle and inside linebacker in the league (including the two linebackers on the field for teams that play a lot of nickel) and established my findings. In addition to charting impact tackles, I also kept track of where each tackle occurred in relation to the line of scrimmage in what I dubbed “Yards at Tackle,” essentially a defensive counterpart to “Yards per Carry.”
PRODUCTION vs production
My findings served to add a layer of separation between players that rack up high numbers of tackles and players that make meaningful plays. The most accurate barometer of this was looking at players Impact Tackles per game. I found that the average starter fell around 3.5 Impact Tackles per game, the pro bowl caliber players fell around 4 per game, and the elite players averaged upwards of 4.5. Also, as you can see from the chart below, only 3 players averaged over 5 per game in a single season: Navorro Bowman (’12 and 13), Bobby Wagner (’12), and Lavonte David (’13). Below is a chart of the league leaders in Impact Tackling for the past 2 seasons: Click on graph to expand for better viewing.
To put some of these numbers into perspective for you, LB Vontaze Burfict, who was credited with 171 tackles and had a still excellent 154 by my count, averaged only slightly above average this past year with 3.69 Impact Tackles per game. However, he was still voted to the Pro Bowl because of his high tackle total over Colts LB Jerrell Freeman, who averaged the 3rd highest Impact Tackle per game total in the league at 4.94 per game. Freeman also recorded 165 tackles by my count; 9 more than Burfict and an astounding 39 more than his official total of 126. Hall of Fame bound LBs Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher averaged just over 2.50 during their final seasons and highly regarded players in their primes such as Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Brandon Spikes fell more than 1 Impact Tackle Per Game below the league average in the past 2 seasons.
“After further review”
Even a deservingly regarded upper-echelon LB like Luke Kuechley, last year’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and this year’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has his accomplishments put into perspective by these numbers. Kuechley may have racked up 300 total tackles in his first two years by my count, however, not only did he make fewer impactful plays in relation to the line of scrimmage over the past two years than six of his fellow linebackers (an average of 4.03 per game), he has been vastly outperformed by rookie classmate and Super Bowl XLVIII Champion Bobby Wagner (5.07 per game), who hasn’t garnered anywhere near the attention or accolades. Kuechley is without a doubt a Top-10 LB, but it can be argued that he may not even be in the Top-5 most effective players at his own position, let alone the best defensive player the NFL has to offer.
While I had hoped that this statistic would serve to set apart the league’s truly elite linebackers and expose some of the more overrated ones, it also had an unintended consequence: it served to identify play style as well through the use of the Yards at Tackle statistic. For example, LB Daryl Washington has had one of the lowest Yards at Tackle averages over the past two seasons, at an average of just over 4 yards per tackle. This is because he is frequently used as an interior pass rusher and run blitzer, as opposed to a player like Kuechley who often drops deep middle in zone coverage and has to read and react to blocking schemes.
Quality over quantity
Despite not making a ton of plays in his last season, Urlacher averaged 1.53 Yards at Tackle against the run in his final season because he run blitzed frequently. As a whole, linebackers that had more responsibilities, such as Bowman and Kuechley, while more effective players had a higher yards at tackle average than players with limited responsibilities. This is much like when you look at QBs who have impressive QB ratings because they are asked to make easier or more efficient plays because that’s what their skill-set lends to, as opposed to an Andrew Luck or Tom Brady who are asked to do a lot more.
Put scrutiny and skepticism in your tool bag
I know you’re wondering, “What does this all mean? Can this all be taken at face value?” First of all, no statistic should ever be taken completely at face value. I haven’t seen a perfect statistic and I certainly won’t suggest that mine is one. It should be used as a useful guide into play style and effectiveness, not a be all and end all. It still does not account for missed tackles, coverage ability, and other critical areas in which linebackers separate themselves from one another.
What it does do is provide a guide to who is making the most impactful plays throughout the course of a game. Much like I discussed in the previous paragraph, I would caution that you have to consider scheme and what a player is being asked to do when looking at these numbers. While Jerrell Freeman is incredibly talented and effective, the Colts’ scheme protects him by stacking him, ensuring that he rarely has to take on blocks and is freed up to pursue the ball carrier and take full advantage of his speed. This is in stark contrast to a Bowman, Wagner, or Kuechley, who are frequently asked to take on blockers.
In summation, it is time to start looking deeper into statistics, especially defensively, in order to more accurately and comprehensively assess players’ effectiveness, but it is important to keep in mind that there isn’t a statistic on this earth that can account for scheme and what a guy is being asked to do.