Broken Tackles 2011 Part II

Broken Tackles 2011 Part II
Broken Tackles 2011 Part II
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Aaron Schatz

Let's continue our series presenting various 2011 stats from the multitude of Football Outsiders spreadsheets. Last week, we looked at broken tackles from the offensive perspective. Today, we'll look at it from the defensive perspective.

(Note: Before we get started, a clarification from last week's piece. I noted last week that Michael Vick had 17 broken tackles escaping sacks, more than twice as many as any other quarterback. After going back and doing a bit more cleaning of data, I have to adjust that statement a bit. Four plays we had listed as broken tackles by Tim Tebow were actually "Houdini" plays because Tebow broke the tackles behind the line of scrimmage on pass plays. Well, by "pass plays" we mean they started as pass plays and were pass plays for at least one or two seconds. So Tebow now has 12 "Houdinis." Tebow and Vick are still tied at 22 total broken tackles, the most for quarterbacks.)

Broken tackles are a stat from game charting, not from the standard play-by-play. 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. We only measured broken tackles for standard plays; volunteers didn't have the time to track them for all special teams plays.

The resulting numbers 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. We know that there are a 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. 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, we did remove special teams tackles so we were only looking at defensive plays. 

Here are all the players that our game charters recorded with 10 or more broken tackles in 2011:

Player Defense Brk Tkl Tackles Rate x Player Defense Brk Tkl Tackles Rate
Darian Stewart STL 19 65 22.6% x Michael Griffin TEN 11 64 14.7%
Sean Jones TB 17 75 18.5% x Charles Godfrey CAR 11 68 13.9%
Tanard Jackson TB 16 32 33.3% x Troy Polamalu PIT 11 69 13.8%
Jabari Greer NO 14 69 16.9% x Navorro Bowman SF 11 114 8.8%
Sean Weatherspoon ATL 13 92 12.4% x Brian Rolle PHI 10 44 18.5%
Sherrod Martin CAR 12 55 17.9% x Nate Allen PHI 10 46 17.9%
Eric Wright DET 12 72 14.3% x Ronde Barber TB 10 70 12.5%
Quintin Mikell STL 12 77 13.5% x Kam Chancellor SEA 10 83 10.8%
Jordan Babineaux TEN 12 81 12.9% x Antrel Rolle NYG 10 84 10.6%
Quincy Black TB 11 53 17.2% x DeAndre Levy DET 10 89 10.1%
Akeem Ayers TEN 11 54 16.9% x Daryl Washington ARI 10 99 9.2%
Jamarca Sanford MIN 11 56 16.4% x

St. Louis safety Darian Stewart paces the league with 19 broken tackles by our count, but some sort of special prize has to go to Tanard Jackson, who we counted with 16 broken tackles in only 10 games. A lot of the same players repeated at the top of this list for 2009 and 2010, but there were only five players with more than 10 broken tackles in both 2010 and 2011: Barber, Griffin, Levy, Martin, and Mikell. Part of the reason why there are so few repeaters is that many of these players didn't see the field as much in 2010. Stewart was primarily a special teamer as a rookie, although he had three broken tackles with only 15 solo tackles on defense. Jackson only played two games in 2010 due to suspension and injury. Eric Wright and Justin Babineau weren't starters, one reason they had only three broken tackles apiece.

If very few players had lots of broken tackles in both 2010 and 2011, what happened to the players who led the league in broken tackles two years ago? Adrian Wilson's total of 16 broken tackles now looks like a real fluke between 2009's two and 2011's six. Tennessee linebacker Will Witherspoon dropped from 15 broken tackles to five, Arizona linebacker Paris Lenon dropped from 14 broken tackles to three, and Detroit linebacker Stephen Tulloch dropped from 13 broken tackles to three. Arizona safety Kerry Rhodes went from 11 broken tackles in a full season to zero in half a season.

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 50 tackles:

Player Defense Brk Tkl Tackles Rate x Player Defense Brk Tkl Tackles Rate
Quincy Black TB 11 53 17.2% x Michael Boley NYG 1 76 1.3%
Akeem Ayers TEN 11 54 16.9% x Philip Wheeler IND 1 60 1.6%
Rob Ninkovich NE 8 50 13.8% x James Laurinaitis STL 2 119 1.7%
Jo-Lonn Dunbar NO 9 61 12.9% x Dan Connor CAR 1 58 1.7%
Sean Weatherspoon ATL 13 92 12.4% x Jordan Senn CAR 1 53 1.9%
Barrett Ruud TEN 7 50 12.3% x Von Miller DEN 1 52 1.9%
Joe Mays DEN 9 66 12.0% x Patrick Willis SF 2 81 2.4%
Chris Gocong CLE 8 59 11.9% x Wesley Woodyard DEN 2 69 2.8%
Aaron Curry SEA/OAK 7 56 11.1% x Mathias Kiwanuka NYG 2 66 2.9%
Mason Foster TB 7 62 10.1% x Brian Urlacher CHI 3 90 3.2%

If you want to see evidence of the decline of the Tampa Bay defense, check out Quincy Black's broken tackle rate. In 2010, Black had only two broken tackles with 53 tackles, a 3.6 percent rate. Last year, Black had the worst broken tackle rate of any linebacker with at least 50 tackles.

Michael Boley's one broken tackle in 2011 matches his one broken tackle in 2010. Yet you never really hear Boley's name mentioned when analysts talk about the best tacklers in football. I'm surprised to see Philip Wheeler so high given the long track record of poor tackling by Colts defenders. (Wheeler signed in Oakland as a free agent this offseason.) I'm a lot less surprised to see Patrick Willis' name in the top ten. He's had only 11 broken tackles total in the three years we've been tracking the stat, despite making more plays than almost any defender in football.

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

Player Defense Brk Tkl Tackles Rate x Player Defense Brk Tkl Tackles Rate
Darian Stewart STL 19 65 22.6% x Chris Harris DEN 1 60 1.6%
Sean Jones TB 17 75 18.5% x Jacob Lacey IND 1 52 1.9%
Chris Gamble CAR 9 41 18.0% x Brandon Browner SEA 1 51 1.9%
Sherrod Martin CAR 12 55 17.9% x Aaron Ross NYG 1 51 1.9%
Nate Allen PHI 10 46 17.9% x O.J. Atogwe WAS 1 44 2.2%
Dunta Robinson ATL 9 43 17.3% x Carlos Rogers SF 1 42 2.3%
Jabari Greer NO 14 69 16.9% x Patrick Chung NE 1 40 2.4%
Jamarca Sanford MIN 11 56 16.4% x Tim Jennings CHI 2 74 2.6%
Johnathan Joseph HOU 8 43 15.7% x Kyle Arrington NE 2 68 2.9%
E.J. Biggers TB 9 51 15.0% x Richard Marshall ARI 2 65 3.0%
Kendrick Lewis KC 9 51 15.0% x

Apparently, the Carolina defensive backs were as bad at tackling as the linebackers were good. Quality tackling in the secondary is a big reason why the mostly-terrible New England defense could often get away with a "bend but don't break" style. Players like Jabari Greer, Johnathan Joseph, and Aaron Ross are good examples of how coverage ability doesn't seem to have much correlation with tackling ability. Same goes for Asante Samuel (8 broken tackles, 31 tackles, 20.5 percent rate). Carlos Rogers, at least last year, was an exception, as was Darrelle Revis (2 broken tackles, 45 tackles, 4.3 percent rate).

And file under odd: Sabby Piscitelli, who led our broken tackle count in 2009, had only one broken tackle in 2010 and 2011 combined.

Defensive linemen don't make anywhere near as many plays as linebackers and defensive backs, so there aren't a lot of linemen with more than two or three broken tackles. Dometa Peko of Cincinnati and Jason Jones of Tennessee led our count with six broken tackles apiece, a little bit of a surprise since we counted zero broken tackles from each player in 2010. Jones is really the broken tackle king for linemen since Peko made twice as many tackles as Jones did. Cliff Avril had five broken tackles last year and leads all defensive linemen with 10 broken tackles over the two-year period of 2010-2011. Lots of linemen had zero recorded broken tackles, including Chris Canty, Andre Carter, Jason Babin, Geno Atkins, and Brandon Mebane (with 46 tackles, the most among players with no broken tackles in 2011).

Finally, here's the list of broken tackles by all 32 defenses. Two defenses were far, far ahead of the rest of the league when it came to broken tackles: Tampa Bay (9.0 percent of plays) and Philadelphia (8.1 percent of plays). No other team was above 6.5 percent. When you see such a big gap between these two teams and the rest of the league, it makes you wonder if we had an issue where the charters doing Tampa Bay and Philadelphia were too relaxed in their subjective determination of what counted as a broken tackle. But I don't think this was the case. If this was an issue with the charters, we would expect Tampa Bay to be high in both offensive and defensive broken tackles, but they were just average on offense. Philadelphia actually was very high on both sides of the ball, but that can't be an issue with a single charter because we have more game charters who are Eagles fans than any other team. That means that they rotated who got to chart the Eagles and who had to chart some other team, and the Eagles games were well spread-out among multiple charters. In addition, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia having a lot of broken tackles makes subjective sense. The Eagles were known for their bad tackling all year, and the Bucs were known for completely giving up on the season.

San Francisco and the New York Giants had the lowest rates of broken tackles on defense.

Broken Tackles by Defenses, 2011
Offense Plays Plays w BT Total BT Pct Plays w BT
TB 981 88 106 9.0%
PHI 968 78 97 8.1%
STL 1008 66 75 6.5%
CAR 955 62 71 6.5%
SD 939 60 65 6.4%
NO 998 63 72 6.3%
TEN 1065 67 82 6.3%
DET 1044 65 74 6.2%
ATL 957 57 62 6.0%
KC 979 57 66 5.8%
OAK 1048 61 72 5.8%
HOU 946 54 58 5.7%
NE 1052 59 65 5.6%
JAC 958 53 59 5.5%
WAS 974 52 62 5.3%
NYJ 977 52 58 5.3%
Offense Plays Plays w BT Total BT Pct Plays w BT
MIN 1010 53 64 5.2%
CHI 1038 54 60 5.2%
IND 1040 54 60 5.2%
CIN 993 51 61 5.1%
DAL 959 49 55 5.1%
PIT 956 48 59 5.0%
DEN 1043 52 60 5.0%
SEA 1031 51 56 4.9%
GB 1038 50 64 4.8%
MIA 1028 49 58 4.8%
BUF 986 44 50 4.5%
ARI 1077 46 54 4.3%
BAL 992 42 48 4.2%
CLE 1016 43 52 4.2%
SF 965 37 42 3.8%
NYG 1056 40 41 3.8%


34 comments, Last at 28 Apr 2012, 6:57pm

#1 by John Courage // Apr 20, 2012 - 12:34pm

I thought this was going to be a list of Vikings DBs not named Antoine Winfield. Very surprised to see Minnesota right at the top of the bell curve. I guess missing a tackle and being out of position to allow easy catches are two separate things.

Points: 0

#2 by Gold_Star_for_… // Apr 20, 2012 - 12:45pm

Nice to see the Cards ranking so well. Of course, for the first half of the season the defenders were so badly missing assignments, they were never in position to make tackles.

Points: 0

#3 by Joseph // Apr 20, 2012 - 1:00pm

Wonder if having all the NFCS D's in the top 9 means anything for the division in general, or if it's just that all of them are known for their offenses (at least this past year).

Points: 0

#13 by eddy (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 6:55pm

Michael Turner, Cam Newton, Lagarrett Blount, Jonathan Stewart, Pierre Thomas, Josh Freeman, Jaquizz Rogers, Drew Brees, and Matthew Stafford all appeared on last weeks top lists. Atlanta is second, while the rest are all above the average. I feel like there were several interdivision shootouts that contributed to the broken tackle numbers.

Points: 0

#24 by zlionsfan // Apr 23, 2012 - 9:10am

nitpick: Stafford would be the only one on the list involved in an interdivision shootout; the rest would be intradivision games. (I was going to add something about how he wouldn't have had that much of an impact anyway, aside from being a QB, but then Detroit played 4 games against the South, only two fewer than the South division teams themselves.)

Points: 0

#34 by LionInAZ // Apr 28, 2012 - 6:57pm

Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson (of course), Calvin Johnson, and Nate Burleson were all on those lists too.

Points: 0

#4 by WillF (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 1:47pm

Wow did not think the Giants would rate so well. Also very surprised that Deon Grant isn't up there. Love the guy and the work ethic and leadership he bring, but he was a huge liability on the field.
I mean his complete whiff on Fred Jackson and Drew Brees (you read that right) should count as two each.

Mildly surprised at Boley although I shouldn't be now that I think about it. Big part of the defense.

Points: 0

#14 by Dales // Apr 20, 2012 - 7:04pm

I also did not expect it, but on reflection, I cannot really think of too many blown tackles this year. Especially compared with recent years.

Points: 0

#5 by PackersRS (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 1:50pm

This can't be correct. GB in the top 10? GB has been a terrible tackling defense for a while now, and last season was the worst. Fully expected GB to be the worst tackling team in the league. Even McCarthy acknowledged that the tackling performance was unacceptable, and McCarthy (and Thompson) never acknowledges anything publicly, particularly if it's a bad trait.

Really surprised by the results.

Points: 0

#7 by koma (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 2:40pm

Yeah, me too. Maybe the defenders were just so slow that there wasn't a tackle to break?

Points: 0

#11 by Sifter // Apr 20, 2012 - 5:59pm

As an Eagles fan I'll happily trade our tackling for yours. Getting rid of Samuel will probably help, but guys like Nate Allen and Brian Rolle are only gonna get bigger roles this year. I notice Dan Connor had a great success rate last year, shame the Eagles missed out on him.

Points: 0

#33 by LionInAZ // Apr 28, 2012 - 6:54pm

I found it odd also, as Pro Football Focus listed Woodson, Williams, and I think Jarrett Bush as having high numbers of missed tackles in 2011. This probably comes down to the question of how a broken tackle is defined and how it's evaluated by the charter.

Points: 0

#6 by Aaron Brooks G… // Apr 20, 2012 - 2:24pm

"Players like Jabari Greer, Johnathan Joseph, and Aaron Ross are good examples of how coverage ability doesn't seem to have much correlation with tackling ability"

And Jacob Lacey, who can't cover, but tackles like a champ. Comparing him to Eric Wright perhaps explains why Detroit signed him this off-season.

Points: 0

#23 by Mr Shush // Apr 23, 2012 - 5:59am

The Texans have one of each starting at corner. Joseph can cover but can't tackle. Jackson can tackle but can't cover. I know which one I'm happier about having on the team . . .

Points: 0

#8 by AxeToGrind (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 4:02pm

I find it interesting that Green Bay has a 14 tackle gap between the total broken tackles and the number of plays with broken tackles. If I read this correctly that would indicate that on several plays more than one defender missed their tackle.

Tennesse has a gap of 15
Phillie has a gap of 19
Tampa has a gap of 18
All the other teams are between 10 and 1.

Green Bay's BT rate is #8 while the other three our in the bottom 8 of the BT rate.

It would seem that GB is above average at tackles but when they blow it, everyone makes sure they get in the highlight reels too.

Points: 0

#10 by AxeToGrind (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 4:31pm

Correction. Pit, Oak and Min all have a gap of 11.

Points: 0

#17 by Ed Schoenfeld (not verified) // Apr 21, 2012 - 9:41am

I seem to remember that all of Green Bays 'gap' can be explained by 1 or 2 plays. :-)

Points: 0

#18 by Perry (not verified) // Apr 21, 2012 - 10:22am

I can say Blount's(TB) run of 50 some yards had at least 9 BTs in it.

Points: 0

#9 by commissionerleaf // Apr 20, 2012 - 4:12pm

Is anyone else shocked to see Indy in the bottom half of the list? They've had no one in the back seven who could tackle except Bethea for years. Is this personnel changes, or an improvement in the linebackers? I admit not watching much Indianapolis football this past year, it was just too painful.

Points: 0

#12 by Eddy (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 6:46pm

I'd wager that teams were so confident that they would be able to walk all over Indy that they didn't bother trying to break tackles.

Points: 0

#16 by Purds // Apr 21, 2012 - 9:12am

Between Wheeler and Lacey that's 112 tackles with just 2 broken. It's not the tackling, it's getting to the ball before the carrier or receiver is 8-10 yards down the field that is the problem.

Points: 0

#15 by MilkmanDanimal // Apr 20, 2012 - 9:58pm

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2011 Tampa Bay Bucks!

Points: 0

#32 by BucNasty // Apr 24, 2012 - 5:23pm

Look on the bright side: Eric Wright looks like a perfect fit for what we do on defense.

Points: 0

#19 by Keith Cockrell (not verified) // Apr 21, 2012 - 12:50pm

I'm a Cowboys fan and really liked T Newman for a lot of years. But I could swear I saw more broken tackles from him this last season than some of the leaders on the boards above. Did they not count hurdles?

Points: 0

#20 by fretful (not verified) // Apr 21, 2012 - 3:11pm

Is there a site that has broken tackles by all NFL players? I'd like to see how many Chris Crocker and Rey Maualuga had.

Points: 0

#21 by Scotty (not verified) // Apr 22, 2012 - 10:29am

Interesting the all 4 NFC South teams were in the top 10 (or bottom 10 depending on perspective) in defensive broken tackles.

Does this have more to do with poor defensive play or an abundance of great offensive players in the division?

Points: 0

#22 by thebamoor // Apr 23, 2012 - 2:18am

Can somebody on FO do a year-to-year correlation study to see if sure-tackledness is a consistent skill?

Points: 0

#25 by The Voice (not verified) // Apr 23, 2012 - 11:59am

This, please. If only to let us poor Eagles fans relax a bit hoping our tackling might regress on its own next year!

Points: 0

#28 by Mr Shush // Apr 24, 2012 - 4:14am

Anecdotally, I wouldn't count on it. The Texans' tackling was persistently awful for years.

Points: 0

#29 by chemical burn // Apr 24, 2012 - 12:43pm

Also, have you seen Nate Allen tackle? He's just not any good at it, mainly because he takes the weirdest angles. I wouldn't hope he suddenly learns how to do something that just doesn't come even slightly naturally to him.

Disappointed to see Brian Rolle on there, though - I thought he had a really promising season, but if the WILL tackles as well as Nate Allen... blecch. These numbers and all the Asante Samuel trade talk suddenly have me really down on the defense...

Points: 0

#30 by Aaron Schatz // Apr 24, 2012 - 3:00pm

It's awfully hard to do a year-to-year correlation study on a metric we've only tracked for three seasons. Give it some time.

Points: 0

#31 by AJ (not verified) // Apr 24, 2012 - 3:16pm

actually, if you were to buy into practices of finance being applied to football- a longer time horizon might actually make the model worse. The alternative is to ramp up the frequency, which would mean using weekly data and in that case, 3 yrs might provide enough evidence to make at least some kind of qualitative statement. But then again, finding the right time horizon is itself a difficult thing.

Points: 0

#26 by zenbitz // Apr 23, 2012 - 2:22pm

One of Patrick Willis' broken tackles came on the play where he hurt his ankle, or the play right after.

Points: 0

#27 by Karl Cuba // Apr 23, 2012 - 5:45pm

I think you mean the play where he pulled his hamstring right at the point where he had the Rams' fullback bang to rights and then crumpled (I think fullback, I could be wrong). I had the same thought, it seems harsh to criticize if that's the miss but then health is a skill.

Points: 0

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