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28 May 2013
by Aaron Schatz
Let's continue our series presenting various 2012 stats from the multitude of Football Outsiders spreadsheets. Today, we'll look at special teams tackles.
Return Tackles are simple: The total number of tackles (and assists) that a player makes on kick and punt returns. This doesn't count onside kicks or end-of-half squib kicks.
Last year's leading tackler on special teams was Lorenzo Alexander, who was with Washington in 2012 but signed in Arizona this offseason. Alexander had 21 return tackles, the fourth straight year that his total went up: it was six in 2009, nine in 2010, and 14 in 2011. Second-year linebacker Spencer Paysinger of the Giants finished second with 20 tackles, and undrafted rookie safety Johnson Bademosi of Cleveland was third.
A number of the top tacklers of the last few years finished tied for fifth with 16 return tackles. Farwell is the top special teams gunner of the last three seasons, with 50 combined tackles since 2010. Matthew Slater has 44 combined tackles over the last three years, and Dan Skuta has 42.
Of course, it isn't enough to just make the tackle on a return. You want to get downfield and tackle that return man before he has a chance to get his team great field position. That's where the Return Stop comes in.
The special teams ratings on Football Outsiders analyze kickoffs and punts by looking at each return compared to an average return, with a baseline based both the length of the kick/punt and the yard line where the return man catches the ball. You can read more about the system here.
When a coverage player made it downfield to get a tackle (or assist) that stopped a return for less-than-average value, we gave him a Return Stop. That includes any time a defender stripped the ball for a fumble, although it doesn't include downing punts that don't get returns.
Alexander and Slater tied for the league lead with 16 Return Stops last year, and in a surprising example of the Pro Bowl getting something completely right, the two players were chosen as the Pro-Bowl special-teamers for the NFC and AFC. Slater was particularly impressive with a Return Stop on all 16 of his tackles. Bademosi was third with 15 Stops in his 17 tackles. Other impressive ratios:
Here's a look at all players with at least a dozen return tackles in 2012, plus the team leaders for any team where no player had at least 12 return tackles.
|NFL Leaders in Return Tackles, 2012|
|Other Team Leaders in Return Tackles, 2012|
The cleanup winner of the year? Brad Smith, who had 12 return tackles but only four Stops. Three times, he saved a touchdown by tackling a punt returner after a return of more than 20 yards.
One note on these stats: We haven't yet added the ability to correct for plays which are shortened by penalty; in other words, if a player makes a tackle on a long return, and that return gets shortened due to a holding penalty, the player ends up listed with a tackle on the shorter yardage. Trying to fix this issue is on our future to do list.
(Ed. Note: The original numbers in this article had Curtis Brown too low; that has now been fixed.)
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