2011 Special Teams Tackles

2011 Special Teams Tackles
2011 Special Teams Tackles
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Aaron Schatz

Let's continue our series presenting various 2011 stats from the multitude of Football Outsiders spreadsheets. Today, we'll look at special teams tackles, both last year and over a three-year period.

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.

Seattle's Heath Farwell led all special teams players with 21 tackles in 2011. He also led in percent of team tackles, being in on 22 percent of all kickoff and punt returns against Seattle. Eric Frampton was second with 20 tackles, and Akeem Dent of Atlanta (who may be taking over for Curtis Lofton as the starting middle linebacker in 2012) was third with 19. However, if we look at percent of team tackles, Lorenzo Alexander of Washington was actually second; he had 14 tackles, but that was 21.2 percent of the returns against Washington. Dent would still be third.

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.

Farwell and Dent also led the league with 16 Return Stops each last year. In fact, no other player had more than 13. Among the more impressive ratios: C.J. Spillman of San Francisco had 13 Stops out of 15 Tackles; Akeem Jordan of Philadelphia had 12 Stops out of 13 Tackles; Eric Weems of Atlanta had 11 Stops out of 12 Tackles.

Corey Graham, who led the league with 23 Return Tackles in 2010, had only 11 last season.

Here's a look at all players with at least a dozen Return Tackles in 2011, plus the team leaders for any team where no player had at least 15 Return Tackles.

NFL Leaders in Return Tackles, 2011
Player Team Return
55-H.Farwell SEA 21 16 76%
37-E.Frampton MIN 20 13 65%
52-A.Dent ATL 19 16 84%
54-N.Bellore NYJ 17 12 71%
29-J.Wendling DET 17 11 65%
57-J.Williams NYG 16 9 56%
27-C.Spillman SF 15 13 87%
39-T.Sash NYG 15 12 80%
97-L.Alexander WAS 14 12 86%
45-J.Miles CIN 14 12 86%
Player Team Return
31-C.Brown PIT 14 10 71%
16-J.Cribbs CLE 14 9 64%
56-A.Jordan PHI 13 12 92%
18-M.Slater NE 13 8 62%
38-C.McIntyre BUF 13 8 62%
93-J.Trusnik MIA 13 6 46%
14-E.Weems ATL 12 11 92%
30-C.Peerman CIN 12 10 83%
35-M.Tolbert SD 12 10 83%
40-D.McCray DAL 12 9 75%
Player Team Return
59-A.Gachkar SD 12 9 75%
51-B.Costanzo SF 12 9 75%
58-T.White NE 12 9 75%
58-D.DeCicco CHI 12 8 67%
25-D.Stuckey SD 12 8 67%
25-R.Cartwright OAK 12 8 67%
50-A.McClellan BAL 12 7 58%
50-O.Schofield ARI 12 7 58%
29-R.Mundy PIT 12 6 50%
23-H.Abdullah ARI 12 6 50%
Other Team Leaders in Return Tackles, 2011
Player Team Return
54-J.Williams CAR 10 9 90%
52-W.Woodyard DEN 10 2 20%
51-D.Smith GB 10 7 70%
59-B.Jones GB 10 7 70%
57-J.Nading HOU 8 6 75%
52-T.Dobbins HOU 8 5 63%
1-P.McAfee IND 7 0 0%
50-R.Allen JAC 10 7 70%
93-C.Greenwood KC 11 6 55%
42-I.Abdul-Quddus NO 9 6 67%
15-D.Curry STL 10 9 90%
43-C.Dahl STL 10 8 80%
57-A.Hayward TB 8 7 88%
59-T.Shaw TEN 9 9 100%
57-P.Bailey TEN 9 8 89%

Colts punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee also led the league with five Return Saves. This is defined as the total number of tackles (or assists) a player makes on:

a) any kickoff return that goes past the 50-yard line, or
b) any punt return of more than 20 yards

In other words, who makes plays that save touchdowns? Rashad Johnson of the Cardinals was second with four Return Saves.

Here's a list of the players with the most Return Tackles over the past three years combined:

Leaders in Total Return Tackles, 2009-2011
Player Team 2009 2010 2011 Total
John Wendling DET/BUF 25 22 17 64
Tim Shaw TEN/CHI 23 19 9 51
Corey Graham CHI 15 23 11 49
Heath Farwell SEA/MIN 14 13 21 48
Eric Frampton MIN 16 10 20 46
Tracy White NE/PHI 14 16 12 42
Mike Tolbert SD 22 7 12 41
Kyle Arrington NE 18 12 11 41
Ryan Mundy PIT 18 9 12 39
Akeem Jordan PHI 14 11 13 38
Kenny Onatolu MIN 18 10 10 38

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.


32 comments, Last at 26 May 2012, 6:46pm

#1 by Ben // May 21, 2012 - 12:56pm

I'm still astounded that the Colts leading Special Teams tackler was their punter/kicker...

Points: 0

#13 by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) // May 22, 2012 - 12:55pm

Yes, speaking as a Colts fan, I do not find this stat the least bit surprising.

Points: 0

#5 by Podge (not verified) // May 22, 2012 - 5:17am

But not one of them was a stop. I mean, come on man, show some hustle!

Would ROBO-PUNTER be more or less likely to be the #1 overall pick if he always made a kickoff return stop?

Actually, if he could do that he'd probably get moved to ROBO-SAFETY.

Points: 0

#7 by thok // May 22, 2012 - 8:10am

ROBO-PUNTER's ridiculous hangtime allows him to slowly saunter to the exact spot the kickoff or punt will land and catch it himself.

Points: 0

#8 by Podge (not verified) // May 22, 2012 - 8:35am

On punts he doesn't need to, because it will go out of bounds at the 1 anyway. On kickoffs, that would be ridiculously valuable - his team would never lose the ball in a half once they got it.

Points: 0

#9 by Theo // May 22, 2012 - 9:44am

ROBO-PUNTER only punts.
ROBO-KICKOFFSPECIALIST would kick the ball off and recover it in the opponent's end zone - making it one hell of a boring half to watch and a game would take longer than a cricket game.

Points: 0

#18 by BaronFoobarstein // May 22, 2012 - 4:59pm

ROBO-PUNTER is the best conceivable punter. He wouldn't down his own punts; he'd bank them off an opponent, recover them, and then score a touchdown.

Points: 0

#25 by Dean // May 23, 2012 - 8:34am

Impossible. If he banks them off an opponent, it's a muff, not a fumble, and by rule can't be advanced.

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#27 by BaronFoobarstein // May 23, 2012 - 8:15pm

ROBO-PUNTER is aware of this fact even if Intropy forgot it. ROBO-PUNTER instead banks the ball off the opponent in such a way as to ensure recovery in the endzone.

Points: 0

#26 by Ranccor // May 23, 2012 - 10:52am

Thank you FO for being the only place on the internet that any discussion of special teams invariably includes a few comments on ROBO-PUNTER.

Points: 0

#2 by Yuri (not verified) // May 21, 2012 - 4:51pm

Cold Anderson from the Eagles had 10 special teams tackles before tearing his ACL about 3/4 into the season.

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#4 by Thomas_beardown // May 21, 2012 - 5:31pm

It's possible Graham's numbers were depressed because he was being asked to play more defense with DJ Moore being injured some time this year. I don't know how much this affected his special teams playing time, just a thought.

Points: 0

#28 by LionInAZ // May 24, 2012 - 12:05am

Perhaps, but it's telling that the Bears dumped Graham in favor of Eric Weems.

Points: 0

#30 by Eddo // May 24, 2012 - 10:51am

I had heard that Graham wanted to play defense more, and that didn't fit into the Bears plans. Hence, they went out and got Weems and Costanzo.

I do think they're better off; I liked Graham, but having two top-tier special teamers is better than having one.

Points: 0

#31 by Thomas_beardown // May 24, 2012 - 11:04am

They signed like 3 guys to replace him. Telling indeed.

Points: 0

#32 by LionInAZ // May 26, 2012 - 6:46pm

Three guys? OK...

Let's put it this way. As shown above, Eric Weems outperformed Graham on ST tackles last season. Weems also returns KOs with a better lifetime return average than Devin Hester. Those two items alone make Weems a valuable pickup, especially since the Bears don't have Hester returning kickoffs full time any more.

Blake Costanzo is a LB, while Graham is a CB. Those are hardly interchangeable parts, even on special teams.

And perhaps you're including the 3 CBs signed to replace the 2 CBs lost to FA (including Zack Bowman). You might consider signing 3 second-rate FA corners as an upgrade over losing 2 second-rate corners, but that remains to be seen.

Hell, my feeling is that the Bears STs are even better now than they were last year with Weems and Costanzo, which is not a good thing for the rest of the division.

Points: 0

#6 by Podge (not verified) // May 22, 2012 - 5:22am

Out of interest, do you have info on the leaders in downing punts? I'm curious whether single players down punts enough for there to be some sort of punt downing skill metric. Something along the lines of length of punt until it landed (does info on this get tracked in PBP?), where the punt was downed, and how far punts that landed at that distance usually go if they aren't downed.

I dunno if its worthwhile though - if the league leader in downing punts is only on 4 or 5, it wouldn't be worth it.

Points: 0

#10 by Joseph // May 22, 2012 - 10:38am

The only part of this that would be worthwhile is if a ST guy is able to down the punt inside the 10, and is able to keep it out of the endzone. Just because the punter kicked the ball 35 yds in the air, it bounced funky, the return guy got away from it, and then it rolled a few more yds before somebody downed it at the 19 (while five guys surrounded it) to me says NOTHING about a player's skill. Now, if the gunner gets down and catches it on the fly inside the 10, or is able to bat it out of the endzone before it lands in the endzone (while a teammate downs it) or is able to down that same punt when another player bats it, then now we are talking about a good play/player. I somehow doubt this is skill (unless a player repeatedly shows this skill).

Points: 0

#11 by Aaron Schatz // May 22, 2012 - 11:34am

Unfortunately, this is not tracked in the PBP.

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#22 by justanothersteve // May 22, 2012 - 7:46pm

It would also probably be rendered useless from small statistical sample issues.

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#20 by Marko // May 22, 2012 - 5:13pm

I had a similar thought, but with respect to players who "force" there to not be a return (either because the returner makes a fair catch or just lets the ball hit the ground or continue bouncing because of the presence of the gunner or other coverage team member). Presumably, this is not tracked in play-by-play and could only be analyzed by breaking down game tape. This also would require some degree of subjectivity regarding what "forced" the lack of a return (e.g., whether it was the presence of the gunner or other coverage team member (or members), some other factor such as a punt with high hang time, a punt too close to the sideline, a punt too close to the goal line to try to catch, a short punt that was bouncing and might lead to a muff if the returner tried to field it, or some combination of the above).

Although it probably is very hard to track, I think this would be more interesting than just tracking special teams tackles. Sometimes the player who "makes the play" isn't the one who makes the tackle. A coverage team member who seals the edge and doesn't let the returner get to the sideline (thus forcing the returner to cut back to where there is help) "makes the play" more so than the tackler (similar to how a defensive end or outside linebacker who stays home on an end around or a revers and forces the runner back to help "makes the play" even though he isn't credited with a tackle or an assist).

Points: 0

#12 by SirKev (not verified) // May 22, 2012 - 12:19pm

Looking at the numbers, you can see again another element of the 49ers success last year: with Spillman and Costanzo they combined for 22 stops out of 27 tackles. That kind of special teams rate kept their opponents driving long fields, decreasing their chance to score.

It will be interesting to see how many of the elements the 49ers did well are repeatable vs random.

Points: 0

#14 by Alaska Jack // May 22, 2012 - 1:06pm

I knew that, sooner or later, Frampton would come alive.


lllll - aj

Points: 0

#15 by TomC // May 22, 2012 - 1:48pm

I want you to show me the way....to get more special teams tackles.

Points: 0

#23 by dbostedo // May 22, 2012 - 9:19pm

If you're a Dallas fan : Ooh, baby I love McCray

Points: 0

#16 by Ferguson1015 // May 22, 2012 - 4:10pm

It looks like San Diego is the only team with 3 different players inside the top 30 and their combined tackles are more than the combined tackles for all of the other teams. Did they just have a higher frequency of special teams plays? I know they had 2 games with exactly 0 punts (Baltimore and Oakland), but I'm curious if they just have a core group of guys (of which the most successful, Tolbert, is now gone) or if those players just stood out that much.

Points: 0

#17 by RC (not verified) // May 22, 2012 - 4:57pm

"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"

Why would you want to "fix" that? Typically returns on plays with penalties are long because of the penalty. If you take out the penalty yardage, you're essentially punishing the player for having the other team commit a foul.

For example, if Team A receives the ball at the 5, and a guy on team B gets held at the 15, and the tackle is made at the 40, why would we want the stat to record a tackle at the 40 (and hence, a 'bad' tackle)?

My thought would be to either leave these plays out altogether, or to just leave them as is. The 15 is a much more meaningful number than the 40 in that example.

Points: 0

#29 by LionInAZ // May 24, 2012 - 12:33am

Because, as a rule, a different player would probably have made the tackle earlier if the penalty had not occurred. The player actually making the tackle after the penalty is getting credit he doesn't deserve.

For example, if a return goes for 30 yards but is called back for a penalty 25 yards back, the player who makes the tackle 30 yards downfield gets credit for a stop that he didn't really earn, because someone else likely drew the penalty.

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#19 by RichC (not verified) // May 22, 2012 - 5:00pm

Also, I'm not seeing "percentage of tackles that are stops" as meaningful. My guess is it correlates very highly to how far up in the coverage formation you are. For example, gunners are probably high (either its a stop, or they don't tackle the guy at all), wherease the guys playing more of a "safety" role in return coverage probably have very low stop rates, even if they're very good at their jobs.

Points: 0

#21 by Thomas_beardown // May 22, 2012 - 5:35pm

I think it's actually negative information.

Team stops would be good to know, but player specific you just want the tackle at some point. Yes tackling a player earlier is better, but in special teams players don't really get to choose when this happens. It's not like a running play where they can read the play and react.

Points: 0

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