BGA Weekly: Did You Miss Me?

During the offseason, I’ll be looking back at certain aspects of the Jets’ season by analyzing data compiled from all nineteen games, rather than watching film. I will be tackling as many diverse topics as possible, but welcome your suggestions or requests in the comments.

In analyzing the way the Jets’ season ended, one of the most eye-opening statistics all season involved missed tackles, as the Jets – by my count – missed 14 against the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Even more revealing was the fact that they missed 13 in the first half – as they fell into a 24 point hole – and only one in the second half, as they battled back within one score.

Undeniably, missed tackles were a big factor in that game, which ultimately decided the fate of the 2010 Jets. However, were missed tackles a key issue during the season? How did the 2010 Jets compare with the other teams in the league and other Jets teams from recent seasons? Is there any correlation between the teams that don’t miss a lot of tackles and the best teams in the league – and are the worst teams those ones that miss a lot of tackles? Finally, who were the most and least reliable tacklers on the Jets last season?

After the jump, I look at the data and investigate the above issues to try to determine how much of a difference it would make if the Jets performed better in this area.

Tackling the Data

In much the same way as they do not track dropped catches, the NFL does not keep track of missed tackles, presumably because they consider it too difficult to accurately determine when a tackle has been missed. Whenever I have been asked to look at missed tackles, I will count anything where the would-be tackler has the ball carrier lined up with an unimpeded opportunity to make the stop, or momentarily has them within their grasp. For the purposes of this analysis, I have used missed tackle statistics from ProFootballFocus.com in this article, to ensure I am working with an unbiased data set with the type of play that constitutes a missed tackle consistently defined.

Although this is an inexact science, at least it gives us a set of data that we can trust to be sufficiently accurate for the purposes of making comparisons. Note that I have ignored missed tackles on special teams or by offensive players following turnovers.

2010 Jets Analysis

We know the Jets had a strong defense in 2010. Was this because they tackled consistently, or could improved tackling have actually made the defense even more impenetrable?

Looking at the raw data, the Jets missed an average of 4.8 tackles per game. Is there a strong correlation between missed tackles and how the team performed though? Looking at the eight missed tackles in the 45-3 loss to New England and the one missed tackle in the 17-16 wild card win over Indianapolis, one might be forgiven for thinking that was the case. However, they had 11 in the Divisional Playoff win over the Patriots and only four in each of the two midseason games where the Browns and Lions took them into overtime.

4.8 missed tackles per game has the Jets ranked 11th best in the NFL in terms of not missing tackles. This tells us that there perhaps is some room for improvement, but that they are not too far off the pace of most of the teams in the league. All but seven teams had between 4.0 and 6.0 missed tackles per game.

So, is it the better teams that tend not to miss tackles? Actually, only four of the top ten made the playoffs. These included the Ravens, Bears and Steelers, three of the more respected defenses in the league, but the highest ranked playoff team was actually New England. The Patriots were only fourth in the league though, as three non-playoff teams missed fewer tackles per game than everybody else – Denver, Oakland and Dallas.

Is it possible to rationalize this? One theory I had was that these were teams that seemed to give up a lot of long plays. So, where the Jets might give up a touchdown on an eighteen play drive where they missed five tackles, as happened against the Steelers, these teams were giving up yardage to wide open receivers and offenses were not having to rely on someone avoiding or breaking a tackle to get the ball downfield on them.

Can a team that misses a lot of tackles still be successful, then? Looking further down the rankings, four of the bottom eight teams in terms of missed tackles did make the postseason, although all four were ousted in the first round.

The Cold Harsh Truth

In analyzing the data, I’ve taken postseason games into account, but this may not be fair to postseason teams. Anecdotally, missed tackles increase at the end of the season, with the weather getting colder and the statistics seem to bear this out. It’s therefore likely that most of those playoff teams slid down the ranking by having me include the data from one (or more) extra cold weather game.

In fact, if you take out the last two postseason games – since the first one was in a dome anyway – the Jets would improve their position and end up tied with the Patriots in 4th place in the NFL.

One interesting pattern I noticed was this: Out of the six teams who missed the most tackles per game, only the Titans play their home games outdoors. The other five all play in a dome. Initially, you might think that this disproves the cold weather leading to more missed tackles theory, but when you think about it, it’s perhaps more likely to mean that teams that are used to playing in domes struggle to adjust to playing outdoors more than the rest of the teams in the NFL. Sure enough, the bottom team in the league – Detroit – missed only 40 tackles at home but 67 tackles on the road. For the record, the other three dome (or retractable roof stadium) teams were 9th, 13th and 23rd and none made the postseason.

Comparing With Previous Years

Last season, the Jets missed 4.7 tackles per game, so there was hardly any difference between 2009 and 2010. However, if we go back to 2008 – the Mangini era – the Jets only missed 3.2 tackles per game, which would have placed them 2nd in the league in 2010.

Mangini preached discipline, but his defenses were nowhere near as successful statistically as the defenses have been for the last two years under Rex Ryan. Here’s where the total number of missed tackles can be a misnomer. The weakness of those Jets teams under Mangini was their soft underbelly. Even jouneymen quarterbacks and over-the-hill receivers were able to pick up consistent yardage every time underneath, so teams were able to move the chains without the need to break too many tackles. Also, while they may have tackled at a better rate, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t give up a lot of yards after contact. In fact, in 2010, the Jets gave up slightly fewer yards per carry after contact that they did in 2008, despite the increased numbers of tackles that were missed.

2010 Individual Analysis

In terms of total missed tackles, the Jets “leaders” were as follows:

David Harris – 11
Drew Coleman – 9
Eric Smith – 8
Brodney Pool – 7
Calvin Pace – 6
Jason Taylor/Kyle Wilson – 5 each
Everybody else – 4 or less

Of course, this doesn’t account for the fact that Harris is in on nearly every play, whereas someone like Kyle Wilson does not play much. Perhaps, therefore, it is more revealing to look at what percentage of potential tackles have been made. If someone made six tackles, but missed two, their tackle rate would be 75%. There are the players with the lowest tackle rate (ignoring anyone who played less than 300 snaps):

Wilson – 77.3%
Coleman – 81.6%
Dwight Lowery – 83.3%
Taylor – 86.5%
Smith – 88.2%
Pool – 88.3%

The first thing we notice is that most of these are defensive backs. That stands to reason, because they will have to make open field tackles more often, sometimes against bigger players, so it is perhaps better to look at the position groupings separately.

Defensive Backs

Continuing on with the defensive backs, then, we can see how those that struggled fared compared with the other defensive backs on the team:

Jim Leonhard – 93.1%
Darrelle Revis – 92.9%
Antonio Cromartie – 91.1%

Leonhard is a particularly interesting case study, as we can see from an article PFF did on 2009 tackle efficiency for safeties:

Jim Leonhard['s] TIR of 19.05 was seventh-worst in the list. Many Jets fans will point out that Leonhard played much of the year with a broken thumb, and a protective cast on his hand, and while this is true (three of his misses can be attributed to his first game playing with that cast), more than half of his misses came when he was fully healthy before any injury. And only two came after that first game back with the cast on his hand.

Leonhard’s obvious improvements in this area may surprise those who felt he underperformed this season, but the high tackle rate for Antonio Cromartie – who has a reputation for being a bad tackler – is likely to be an even bigger surprise. Sure enough, last year he was not very efficient and was again mentioned by PFF when they looked at cornerbacks:

Recent Jets acquisition Antonio Cromartie has often had a reputation as a player who isn’t as keen on tackling as maybe he should be, and he finds himself just outside the bottom ten with a 16.22 TIR.

Cromartie’s improvements don’t necessarily represent that he has improved as a tackler, but could instead be indicitative that he has been coached to approach tackling conservatively and make sure the ball carrier doesn’t get beyond him, even if that means he is able to pick up extra yards as Cromartie focuses on staying in front of him rather than aggressively trying to meet the runner as early as possible and risking a missed tackle.

The reason I suggest this is that Kerry Rhodes went completely the other way when he left the Jets. Rhodes has a similar reputation for not being a good tackler, and yet he posted similar efficiency numbers to Cromartie in his last year as a Jet. PFF also noted this:

Much has been made recently about the play of Kerry Rhodes and his tackling. Although this list doesn’t pretend to account for occasions where a player simply shies away from the tackling attempt, it shows that when Rhodes attempted a tackle, the new Cardinals safety was reasonably efficient at making it stick. His TIR of 9.09 was good enough to rank him inside the best 25 safeties on the season.

Although Rhodes sometimes threw his shoulder at a ball carrier rather than making a form tackle and often looked tentative and/or was dragged for extra yardage as he approached a ball carrier in the open field, the number of occasions he actually let his guy get away from him was surprisingly low. Contrast that with this season, where he gambled a lot more and ended up with the 3nd most missed tackles in the entire NFL – not just for safeties – and you can see why I might suggest that there’s a difference in the way he’s being coached or at least in how he has decided to approach the game. He was more statistically productive too, so his tackle rate was just outside the bottom ten, but that’s still a huge drop-off from last year.

One final point on the defensive backs, it’s obvious that the Jets have coached their defensive backs to try and strip the ball when making a downfield tackle or one where they are second on the scene. This is why you will often see guys like Darrelle Revis stay on their feet and fish for the ball rather than making a physical stop on their man. This paid dividends several times during the season, with Drew Coleman perhaps partially making up for his nine missed tackles with six forced fumbles, a couple of which came after big plays, including a vital one against the Browns.

For the record, 40 NFL defensive backs were in double figures in terms of missed tackles in 2010, so no Jet made that list, although Coleman was close and Smith and Pool were not far behind.

Let’s now consider how many yards were gained on plays where defensive backs missed tackles. Again, this is an inexact science, because I do not have enough information to determine how many extra yards were gained because of the missed tackle. However, it does enable us to compare which players were involved in some of the more costly plays. You would expect the yardage gained to be higher than for linebackers and linemen, since a lot of the tackle attempts would be made downfield.

Where two or more players missed a tackle on the same play, I have split the yardage equally between them. I have only looked at guys with at least four missed tackles.

Cromartie – 23.0 yards per play
Pool – 18.6 yards per play
Lowery – 17.0 yards per play
Coleman – 16.3 yards per play
Smith – 12.0 yards per play
Leonhard – 10.8 yards per play
Wilson – 8.4 yards per play

Notably, although Wilson had the lowest tackle rate, four of his five missed tackles were on plays that gained less than 10 yards, so he did not make any really costly mistakes with his tackling. The relative numbers do seem to correlate strongly with how close you might usually expect each of these players to play to the line of scrimmage. Dwight Lowery’s average would have been 21.2 yards per play, but there was a 38 yarder that was negated by an illegal motion penalty.

Although nobody’s stats are too bad, there is room for improvement and we can look back to the last couple of seasons to see whose performance improved or declined.

- As noted, Leonhard and Cromartie made big improvements on last year.
– Revis’ tackle rate has consistently been in the low 90’s in each of the last three seasons.
– Lowery was in the low 90’s in each of the last two seasons, but dropped to the low 80’s this year, although that was perhaps not unexpected with the move to safety.
– Coleman is consistently in the 80-85% range, which is slightly disappointing. Despite the forced fumbles, he does seem to miss a few too many tackles and in 2010, he also missed four on special teams.

Linebackers

Let’s look at the tackle rates for the five main Jets linebackers in 2010:

Bryan Thomas – 98.2%
Bart Scott – 94.5%
David Harris – 90.0%
Calvin Pace – 89.7%
Jason Taylor – 86.5%

For Thomas, this was his second highly efficient season in a row in terms of his tackling. He was tenth in the league last year with a 96.3% tackle rate and actually improved on that. He is one of just a few players who is missing fewer tackles than he did in the final year under Mangini, where he was only just over 90%. Taylor, on the other hand, posted a tackle rate that would have placed him just outside the bottom ten last year. Calvin Pace, you may be surprised to learn, was a much less efficient tackler last year (below 85%), but was very efficient in the last year under Mangini (over 95%), so he seems to have found a happy medium. Bart Scott improved slightly over last year and David Harris posted similar numbers, but it is interesting to note that in 2008, Harris led the team at 98.2% (only one missed tackle) playing a role similar to Scott’s current role, where he took on more blockers and was less statistically productive.

Let’s look at how costly these missed tackles were:

Harris – 13.5 yards per play
Taylor – 7.6 yards per play
Pace – 6.1 yards per play
Scott – 6.0 yards per play

As you can see, if Harris misses a tackle, this tends to be more costly than if any of the other linebackers does. In fact, he’s often the one to show up and limit the damage if another linebacker happens to miss. The Jets defense is designed in such a way that Harris is often in space and making a crucial tackle. Usually he does this, but on the 11 occasions he couldn’t, nine of those plays went for 10 or more yards. For me, this underlines his importance and the Jets should be very wary of downgrading even slightly at this position. (Note: In 65 snaps in relief of Harris over the last two years, Ryan Fowler and Josh Mauga have three missed tackles and a 40% tackle rate. Try extrapolating that over a whole season!)

Bryan Thomas is not considered due to having fewer than four missed tackles on the year.

For more discussion on Bart Scott and missed tackles, re-read my BGA Extra on the AFC Title Game, where I dispute Rich Cimini’s assertion that this was his worst game.

Although the missed tackle numbers across the board are not bad for the linebackers, that doesn’t account for when a player has been blocked out of a play. For Pace and Thomas in particular, this seemed to be an area where they regressed in 2010. If anything, Harris did a better job of avoiding that this year.

For the record, 11 inside linebackers were in double figures for missed tackles and 14 led the league. In terms of 3-4 OLB’s, only six had six or more and eight led the league.

Defensive Linemen

Missed tackles are not generally a big issue for defensive linemen, especially when you have a three man front, which practically guarantees that each lineman will be engaged with a blocker.

However, the Jets did have some costly missed tackles from their linemen in the postseason.

In fact, Mike DeVito, Trevor Pryce, Sione Pouha and Shaun Ellis combined for seven missed tackles in the last two postseason games, after having had just seven between them in the first 17 games of the year.

DeVito was the only one with more than four and the total damage on the five plays where he missed a tackle was just 11 yards. However, Pryce and Pouha did give up 29 costly yards against the Steelers with two missed tackles each – despite entering the game with just one each.

Here were the tackle rates:

Pouha – 94.1%
Ellis – 91.7%
DeVito – 90.6%

These were the only three that played more than 300 snaps. All three posted similar tackle rates over the last two years.

For the record, there were only six 3-4 linemen with five or more missed tackles and seven led the league.

Conclusions

On its own, the number of missed tackles can be a very misleading statistic, but – given the correct context – it does allow us to investigate certain trends. Clearly the Jets are a team that does a good job of getting its defensive playmakers into a position where they can stop a play, which might lead to them being credited with more missed tackles than certain other teams, despite being more effective overall.

The team had games where they were able to overcome a lot of missed tackles and still win, but equally there were times when missed tackles were the main reason for their undoing. While there is always room for improvement, notably with certain individuals, the Jets as a team did a solid job of tackling for most of the year, compared to the rest of the league, so if they want the defense to improve, they will probably see more dramatic results from focusing on other areas, such as improving their depth and bolstering the pass rush.

As ever, I welcome any submissions for what you would like me to cover next week.