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29 Apr 2014

2013 Broken Tackles: Defense

by Aaron Schatz

After many hours spent checking and cleaning up our 2013 game charting data, it's now time to start filling up Football Outsiders with articles on our various stats from last season. We'll start today with a stat that comes directly from game charting, not from the standard play-by-play: broken tackles. We define a "broken tackle" as one of two events: either the ballcarrier escapes from the grasp of the defender, or the defender is in good position for a tackle but the ballcarrier jukes him out of his shoes. If the ballcarrier sped by a slow defender who dived and missed, that didn't count as a broken tackle. It also doesn't count as a broken tackle if a defender gets a hand on the ballcarrier but is effectively being blocked out of the play by another offensive player. We only measure broken tackles for standard plays; volunteers didn't have the time to track them for all special teams plays.

In past years, we've posted the broken tackle numbers for offense before those for defense. This year, we're flipping things around. Why, you may ask? Because with the return of these 2013 stat reports also comes the return of special elite Football Outsiders stars in Madden 25 Ultimate Team. We'll reveal those players at the end of this article. Offensive numbers will run in a separate article later this week.

Broken tackle stats are subjective, obviously, but there were over two dozen charters involved, so no team's numbers could be overly slanted because of the bias of a single specific charter. In fact, this year for the first time, there was actually a negative correlation between broken tackles on offense and broken tackles on defense for the same team, suggesting that we didn't end up with certain teams ranked very high or low on both sides of the ball because of specific charters who tended to mark broken tackles more or less often than the rest of the charters. Another interesting note about broken tackles in 2013 is that for the first time, our charters marked more broken tackles this season than in the season before. We marked 2,139 broken tackles this year, which was about 150 more broken tackles than we marked in 2012 and the highest number since our first year of marking broken tackles back in 2009. It's unlikely that broken tackle numbers leaguewide really jumped that much; it's more likely that we missed some in 2012, and we may go back to 2012 in the next few weeks to see if there might be broken tackles we missed.

We know that there are other groups on the Web who track broken tackles, and because of the subjectivity, their numbers won't be exactly the same as ours. Given the mistakes that are easy to make when marking players off of television tape, a difference of one or two broken tackles isn't a big deal. But looking at the players with the most and fewest broken tackles does a good job of showing us which defenders were able to wrap up and which ones got run over or faked out by a great lateral move.

We can also look at broken tackle rate. For each defender we compared broken tackles to the total of broken tackles and solo tackles. A quick note about how we figured the number of solo tackles: first, we removed special teams tackles and looked only at defensive plays. Second, we decided not to include assists, because a missed assist is not usually something we would mark as a missed tackle opportunity -- after all, another defender is getting a successful tackle at the exact same time. However, when the play-by-play lists two defenders separated by a semicolon rather than a colon, then technically they both get assists and neither of them gets a solo tackle in the NFL numbers. However, for broken tackle purposes, we still counted the first player listed with a tackle.

Here are all the players that our game charters recorded with 10 or more broken tackles in 2013:

Most Broken Tackles by Defenders, 2013
Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
2012
x Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
2012
31-B.Meriweather WAS 16 62 20.5% 0 x 21-M.Mitchell CAR 12 58 17.1% 1
47-C.Conte CHI 15 77 16.3% 8 x 29-E.Thomas SEA 12 83 12.6% 12
52-C.Greenway MIN 14 98 12.5% 8 x 24-C.Woodson OAK 12 84 12.5% 2
29-B.Ross OAK 14 58 19.4% 0 x 39-B.Carr DAL 11 63 14.9% 5
38-D.Goldson TB 13 58 18.3% 6 x 26-M.Elam BAL 11 61 15.3% --
23-D.Hall WAS 13 69 15.9% 7 x 25-W.Moore ATL 11 70 13.6% 6
26-T.Jennings CHI 13 54 19.4% 4 x 37-J.Cyprien JAC 10 86 10.4% --
59-L.Kuechly CAR 13 118 9.9% 8 x 28-T.DeCoud ATL 10 47 17.5% 13
52-A.Ogletree STL 13 103 11.2% -- x 26-L.Delmas DET 10 55 15.4% 4
22-B.Skrine CLE 13 60 17.8% 7 x 37-R.Doughty WAS 10 47 17.5% 4
26-J.Wilson WAS 13 72 15.3% 5 x 26-J.Evans JAC 10 47 17.5% --
31-S.Keo HOU 12 53 18.5% 0 x 50-J.Freeman IND 10 106 8.6% 7
27-M.Jenkins NO 12 55 17.9% 12 x 39-T.Gipson CLE 10 84 10.6% 1
32-J.Ihedigbo BAL 12 71 14.5% 2 x 35-E.Reid SF 10 61 14.1% --
22-T.Johnson STL 12 62 16.2% 5 x 32-E.Weddle SD 10 84 10.6% 6

Once again, there's a huge amount of year-to-year turnover when it comes to players with more than 10 broken tackles. In part, this is because pretty much any NFL stat where most players are in single digits will see a lot of variation from year to year. The effect is extra strong in 2013 because so many of the players who had a lot of broken tackles in 2013 were either rookies or players who played very little in 2012 such as Brandon Meriweather, Brandian Ross, and Shiloh Keo. Still, four of the seven players who had at least a dozen broken tackles in 2012 had at least nine in 2013. Nate Allen of the Eagles is the player not listed above, going from 12 broken tackles to nine in 2013. Ed Reed went from 15 to six, although this was in part due to fewer snaps. The biggest improvements in broken tackles belonged to Michael Griffin, who went from a league-leading 18 broken tackles to just seven despite making the same number of total tackles, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who went from 12 to just five. Maybe getting out of Philadelphia just naturally makes you a better tackler. (You can see the top numbers from 2012 here.)

As you'll see later on, the players with the most broken tackles in 2013 happened to play for the defenses with the most broken tackles in 2013. Somehow, when Washington played Chicago in Week 7, Meriweather and Conte made it through with just three combined broken tackles. If you look closely, you'll see that all four starting Washington defensive backs had double-digit broken tackles last season. It was not a good season for the Washington defense, especially if Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan couldn't get to the quarterback quickly.

Now let's look at the highest and lowest broken tackle rates. First, here are the best and worst rates for linebackers, with a minimum of 40 tackles:

Highest Broken Tackle Rate, 2013 Linebackers Lowest Broken Tackle Rate, 2013 Linebackers
Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
2012
x Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
2012
52-C.McCarthy TEN 9 40 18.4% 4 x 55-B.Spikes NE 1 68 1.4% 3
57-J.Bostic CHI 7 47 13.0% -- x 91-M.Lawson BUF 1 54 1.8% 3
50-K.Wright SEA 9 62 12.7% 6 x 55-A.Jordan KC 1 53 1.9% 2
52-C.Greenway MIN 14 98 12.5% 8 x 50-S.Lee DAL 2 86 2.3% 1
55-L.Briggs CHI 9 64 12.3% 6 x 55-S.Moore OAK 1 40 2.4% --
51-D.Sharpton HOU 9 71 11.3% 1 x 54-D.Hightower NE 2 70 2.8% 3
52-A.Ogletree STL 13 103 11.2% -- x 54-B.Wagner SEA 3 92 3.2% 4
55-G.Hayes JAC 8 64 11.1% 3 x 52-W.Woodyard DEN 2 60 3.2% 3
53-J.McClain BAL 5 40 11.1% 7 x 51-P.Posluszny JAC 5 144 3.4% 7
51-P.Angerer IND 5 42 10.6% 2 x 54-S.Paysinger NYG 2 57 3.4% 1
56-D.Davis NYJ 9 77 10.5% 2 x 50-K.Alonso BUF 4 98 3.9% --
59-L.Fletcher WAS 9 79 10.2% 11 x 59-D.Trevathan DEN 4 93 4.1% 0

Again, you see a lot of turnover here with the linebackers who had the highest broken tackle rates. Colin McCarthy comes out way ahead of (or is that behind?) everyone else, but that's in part because he just hit my minimum 40 tackles to be ranked. Mychal Kendricks, who had the highest broken tackle rate for linebackers in 2012 (11 broken, 62 tackles) just misses the list this year at 9.1 percent (9 broken, 90 tackles).

As far as the lowest broken tackle rates, Brandon Spikes can't cover receivers at all but he sure can play the run and make solid tackles. His signing with Buffalo is a case of the rich getting richer, as the Bills led the league with the fewest broken tackles in 2012 and (spoiler alert!) had the fewest number of plays with broken tackles again in 2013, though they didn't have the fewest actual number of broken tackles because of plays with two or more. With Manny Lawson and Kiko Alonso, next year's three starting linebackers for Buffalo will be coming off a year with a combined six broken tackles between them.

Now, let's look at the highest and lowest broken tackle rates for defensive backs, with a minimum of 40 tackles:

Highest Broken Tackle Rate, 2013 Defensive Backs Lowest Broken Tackle Rate, 2013 Defensive Backs
Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
2012
x Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
2012
31-B.Meriweather WAS 16 62 20.5% 0 x 31-M.Cooper KC 0 41 0.0% --
29-B.Ross OAK 14 58 19.4% 0 x 23-A.Williams BUF 1 63 1.6% 0
26-T.Jennings CHI 13 54 19.4% 4 x 21-J.Robinson MIN 1 47 2.1% 6
31-S.Keo HOU 12 53 18.5% 0 x 22-B.Boykin PHI 1 42 2.3% 7
38-D.Goldson TB 13 58 18.3% 6 x 25-W.Hill NYG 2 59 3.3% 0
27-M.Jenkins NO 12 55 17.9% 12 x 32-K.Vaccaro NO 3 71 4.1% --
22-B.Skrine CLE 13 60 17.8% 7 x 29-E.Berry KC 3 70 4.1% 5
26-J.Evans JAC 10 47 17.5% -- x 21-C.Owens 2TM 2 46 4.2% 0
28-T.DeCoud ATL 10 47 17.5% 13 x 28-N.Carroll MIA 2 45 4.3% 6
37-R.Doughty WAS 10 47 17.5% 4 x 23-V.Davis IND 2 44 4.3% 2
21-M.Mitchell CAR 12 58 17.1% 1 x 24-B.Flowers KC 3 65 4.4% 6
23-C.Houston DET 8 40 16.7% 3 x 28-K.Lewis NO 2 43 4.4% 9

Meriweather was a regular starter last year for the first time since 2010 and, well, the guy takes a lot of chances. That leads to a lot of broken tackles. A lot of the defensive backs with a high number of broken tackles were, like Meriweather, players who weren't regular starters the year before. Then again, the same is true for a lot of the defensive backs with very low broken tackle rates, including the one guy who had no broken tackles with at least 40 tackles, Kansas City rookie nickelback Marcus Cooper.

Defensive linemen don't make anywhere near as many plays as linebackers and defensive backs, so we end up with a lot of linemen who have just one or two broken tackles. However, this year there were actually a good number of linemen with more than just a couple of broken tackles -- a lot of the jump between the number of broken tackles we marked in 2012 and the number we marked in 2013 came with broken tackles charged to linemen. Jonathan Babineaux of the Falcons led all defensive linemen with nine broken tackles after being second among linemen with five in 2012. Here's a list of all defensive linemen with at least five broken tackles:

Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
2012
95-J.Babineaux ATL 9 33 21.4% 5
91-C.Wake MIA 8 31 20.5% 3
92-R.Pitoitua TEN 6 36 14.3% 3
98-J.Odrick MIA 5 40 11.1% 2
69-J.Allen MIN 5 42 10.6% 1
94-A.Clayborn TB 5 50 9.1% 0
93-C.Campbell ARI 5 51 8.9% 4
99-M.Dareus BUF 5 53 8.6% 0
95-Cha.Jones NE 5 59 7.8% 2
99-L.Houston OAK 5 60 7.7% 3
92-C.Thomas SD 5 19 20.8% 0

New York Jets nose tackle Damon "Big Snacks" Harrison had the most tackles among the linemen with zero broken tackles (50), followed by Dontari Poe (47) and Babineaux's teammate Corey Peters (40). DeMarcus Ware was another notable lineman listed with zero broken tackles; he had seven the year before, which would have led defensive linemen in 2012 except that Ware was technically an outside linebacker that year.

Finally, we've got the list of broken tackles by all 32 defenses. Washington had the most broken tackles in the league by far, followed by Chicago. I noted earlier the problems with the Washington defensive backs. With Chicago, breaking things down into run vs. pass really hammers home the problems of the Chicago run defense in 2013. The Bears had 64 broken tackles on runs, compared to just 28 on receptions and three which were quarterbacks avoiding sacks behind the line of scrimmage. Chicago and Washington (56) were the only two defenses with more than 40 broken tackles on running plays; meanwhile, 22 different defenses had more broken tackles on receptions than the Bears did. Miami had the most broken tackles where quarterbacks avoided sacks (11), which makes a lot of sense when Cameron Wake has eight.

Buffalo once again had the lowest rate of plays with broken tackles, although as I said before, the Bills didn't have the fewest broken tackles in the league. That title went to Kansas City at 45, followed by the Patriots, Saints, and Bills. That Kansas City number is a little shocking considering how many shaky-tackling defenders Andy Reid employed in Philadelphia. But it wasn't anywhere near as shocking as what happened to the Eagles with Reid gone. Chip Kelly's new regime changed a lot of things about the Eagles; one of the changes that may not have been as noticeable is that the Eagles suddenly figured out how to tackle. The Eagles were near the bottom of the league in broken tackles after leading the league in both 2011 and 2012.

Broken Tackles by Team, 2013 Defenses
Defense Plays Plays w BT Total BT Pct Plays
w BT
WAS 970 85 104 8.8%
CHI 1015 77 95 7.6%
ATL 998 72 83 7.2%
STL 1012 73 80 7.2%
BAL 1020 65 76 6.4%
MIN 1119 70 86 6.3%
TEN 1015 63 72 6.2%
CAR 969 60 72 6.2%
OAK 1019 63 77 6.2%
SD 956 59 64 6.2%
MIA 1090 66 74 6.1%
TB 1009 61 66 6.0%
HOU 965 57 74 5.9%
SEA 990 58 61 5.9%
GB 1008 56 61 5.6%
DAL 1085 59 65 5.4%
Broken Tackles by Team, 2013 Defenses
Defense Plays Plays w BT Total BT Pct Plays
w BT
ARI 1037 56 64 5.4%
JAC 1076 58 65 5.4%
DET 969 52 60 5.4%
CLE 1093 58 68 5.3%
CIN 1038 54 61 5.2%
IND 1021 53 59 5.2%
NYJ 1041 54 64 5.2%
PIT 1031 53 64 5.1%
SF 1015 52 57 5.1%
NYG 1076 55 62 5.1%
PHI 1148 57 66 5.0%
NO 939 45 48 4.8%
DEN 1074 47 51 4.4%
NE 1114 45 46 4.0%
KC 1065 42 45 3.9%
BUF 1080 42 49 3.9%

During the 2013 season, we partnered with EA Sports to bring special Football Outsiders-branded items to Madden 25 Ultimate Team. After a few weeks off, those special elite Football Outsiders players are back for summer, to give you a few more great players for your team before we move on to Madden 15. This week's group of players with great broken tackle rates will be in Ultimate Team packs beginning on Friday:

  • DAL MLB Sean Lee, 98 OVR: 86 tackles, only two broken tackles
  • SEA MLB Bobby Wagner, 96 OVR: 92 tackles, only three broken tackles
  • DEN ROLB Danny Trevathan, 95 OVR: 93 tackles, only four broken tackles
  • NYJ DT Damon Harrison, 94 OVR: 50 tackles, zero broken tackles
  • MIN SS Robert Blanton, 94 OVR: We didn't get to him above because he didn't hit the 40 tackle minimum, but Blanton had only one broken tackle with 38 tackles

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 29 Apr 2014

5 comments, Last at 01 May 2014, 4:18pm by Kevin from Philly

Comments

1
by Perfundle :: Tue, 04/29/2014 - 5:40pm

Interesting to see that the Super Bowl gave an extremely distorted view of Seattle's (and Denver's) tackling ability, with everyone talking about how well the Seahawks wrapped up. Guess they must've forgotten how many tackles Kaepernick eluded when he was scrambling.

2
by aeneas1 :: Thu, 05/01/2014 - 12:21pm

the bills ranked 20th in offensive points allowed in 2013 yet rank best in plays with broken tackles. meanwhile seattle, carolina and ravens ranked 1st, 2nd and 9th in fewest offensive points allowed in 2013 yet rank 19th, 25th and 28th in plays with broken tackles. altho the stats are somewhat interesting, do broken tackles correlate to anything meaningful, significant?

3
by tuluse :: Thu, 05/01/2014 - 1:17pm

A tackle can't be broken if the defender isn't in position in the first place.

4
by Perfundle :: Thu, 05/01/2014 - 2:05pm

The Bills defense faced the most drives of any team, with the second-worst starting field position, mainly because of their bad offense and their horrible special teams. The Bills actually had a pretty good defense, at 6th in yards per play allowed and 6th in turnovers.

As for the other teams, I know that Earl Thomas has the habit of rushing as fast as possible in a straight line toward the ball-carrier when he sees that he has backup behind him, and while this often leads to a broken tackle, it slows the ball-carrier down enough to make him easier to tackle for his teammates. So perhaps yards gained after each broken tackle might vary considerably from team to team.

5
by Kevin from Philly :: Thu, 05/01/2014 - 4:18pm

That might be the first positive comment I've heard about last year's Eagle D. "They didn't suck as bad at the end of the year" doesn't count.