Broken Tackles 2012: Defense

Broken Tackles 2012: Defense
Broken Tackles 2012: Defense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Aaron Schatz

Let's continue our series presenting various 2012 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.

First, let's once again define broken tackles for those who didn't read last week's article. 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 2012:

Most Broken Tackles by Defenders, 2012
Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
x Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
Michael Griffin TEN 18 68 20.9% 11 x Harrison Smith MIN 11 83 11.7% --
Ed Reed BAL 15 51 22.7% 5 x London Fletcher WAS 11 96 10.3% 8
Thomas DeCoud ATL 13 68 16.0% 6 x Jo-Lonn Dunbar STL 11 99 10.0% 9
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie PHI 12 46 20.7% 5 x Daryl Washington ARI 11 111 9.0% 10
Earl Thomas SEA 12 51 19.0% 6 x Alterraun Verner TEN 10 64 13.5% 5
Nate Allen PHI 12 61 16.4% 10 x Craig Robertson CLE 10 66 13.2% --
Malcolm Jenkins NO 12 77 13.5% 9 x Janoris Jenkins STL 10 70 12.5% --
Craig Dahl STL 11 59 15.7% 4 x Antrel Rolle NYG 10 73 12.0% 10
Mychal Kendricks PHI 11 62 15.1% --   Ronde Barber TB 10 78 11.4% 10
Mark Barron TB 11 78 12.4% -- x Curtis Lofton NO 10 111 8.3% 6
Jasper Brinkley MIN 11 78 12.4% -- x Lavonte David TB 10 120 7.7% --
Kurt Coleman PHI 11 81 12.0% 8 x

Our list of players with over 10 broken tackles has a lot of turnover between 2011 and 2012. St. Louis safety Darian Stewart had 19 broken tackles to lead the league in 2011, but lost his job and had no broken tackles in limited time as a backup. Craig Dahl, the man who replaced him, makes our list instead with 11 broken tackles. Sean Jones, who had 17 broken tackles in 2011, was cut in the preseason by Detroit, while Tanard Jackson, who had 16 broken tackles in just 10 games in 2011, was suspended for the entire year.

Meanwhile, a number of players saw their broken tackles go way up in 2012. Ed Reed had problems all year, although his worst game was definitely Week 6 against Dallas. We counted him with four broken tackles in that game, including a play where the runner dragged Reed for an extra few yards and two plays where Reed and another defender collided trying to make a tackle and both failed. Thomas DeCoud of Atlanta had a surprisingly tough time cleaning up after long completions. Earl Thomas' rise in broken tackles was a bit surprising because his total of actual tackles dropped by one-third.

Other players, such as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Dahl, saw their broken tackles increase because of more playing time. There are also a number of rookies on our list of the most broken tackles, plus Jasper Brinkley, who missed all of 2011 with injury.

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:

Highest Broken Tackle Rate, 2012 Linebackers   Lowest Broken Tackle Rate, 2012 Linebackers
Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
x Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
Mychal Kendricks PHI 11 62 15.1% -- x Bruce Carter DAL 0 56 0.0% 1
Craig Robertson CLE 10 66 13.2% -- x Kelvin Sheppard BUF 1 61 1.6% 2
Brian Urlacher CHI 8 56 12.5% 3 x Justin Houston KC 1 59 1.7% 3
Jasper Brinkley MIN 11 78 12.4% -- x Jerod Mayo NE 2 115 1.7% 5
Nick Roach CHI 7 57 10.9% 3 x Bradie James HOU 1 52 1.9% 3
Jameel McClain BAL 7 59 10.6% 6 x Patrick Willis SF 2 102 1.9% 2
Brad Jones GB 7 61 10.3% 0 x Bryan Scott BUF 1 51 1.9% 8
London Fletcher WAS 11 96 10.3% 8 x A.J. Hawk GB 2 90 2.2% 6
Dannell Ellerbe BAL 8 71 10.1% 1 x Zach Brown TEN 2 75 2.6% --
Jo-Lonn Dunbar STL 11 99 10.0% 9 x Michael Boley NYG 2 67 2.9% 1
Akeem Ayers TEN 9 81 10.0% 11 x Erin Henderson MIN 2 63 3.1% 3
Sean Weatherspoon ATL 9 81 10.0% 13 x Takeo Spikes SD 2 58 3.3% 8

The surprising names here are really on the list of lowest broken tackle rates. Bruce Carter made a very strong entry into the Dallas starting lineup, with no broken tackles in 11 games before dislocating his elbow on Thanksgiving. Even more surprising is Kelvin Sheppard, because the Bills linebackers were generally dismal in 2012. Perhaps Sheppard had so few broken tackles because he couldn't get near enough to the ballcarrier to qualify. (He ranked 29th in tackles among middle/inside linebackers.) Notice that Sheppard's teammate Bryan Scott is also on our list of the lowest broken tackle rates.

Not surprising on our list of the best tackle rates: Patrick Willis, Jerod Mayo, and Michael Boley, who make tons of tackles every year with very few broken. Willis has only nine broken tackles over the last three seasons despite being near the league lead in overall tackles. Mayo has only eight broken tackles in that same period, and Boley has just four. The underrated Boley is still out there on the free-agent market, although when it comes to the decision to sign him, this story probably offsets his excellent tackling.

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, 2012 Defensive Backs   Lowest Broken Tackle Rate, 2012 Defensive Backs
Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
x Player Team Brk Tkl Solo Tkl Rate Brk Tkl
Ed Reed BAL 15 51 22.7% 5 x Tarell Brown SF 0 52 0.0% 2
Michael Griffin TEN 18 68 20.9% 11 x Carlos Rogers SF 1 52 1.9% 1
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie PHI 12 46 20.7% 5 x Mike Adams DEN 2 72 2.7% 4
Earl Thomas SEA 12 51 19.0% 6 x Cary Williams BAL 2 71 2.7% 1
Nate Allen PHI 12 61 16.4% 10 x Champ Bailey DEN 2 64 3.0% 8
Jabari Greer NO 8 41 16.3% 14 x Terence Newman CIN 2 63 3.1% 6
Thomas DeCoud ATL 13 68 16.0% 6 x Jairus Byrd BUF 2 58 3.3% 7
Craig Dahl STL 11 59 15.7% 4 x Sheldon Brown CLE 2 56 3.4% 6
Danny McCray DAL 9 50 15.3% 0 x Stephon Gilmore BUF 2 56 3.4% --
Nnamdi Asomugha PHI 8 50 13.8% 8 x T.J. Ward CLE 2 56 3.4% 2

Yes, those are three of the four starting Philadelphia defensive backs on our list of the highest broken tackle rates. As we'll note in a few paragraphs, the Eagles led the league in broken tackles for the second straight season. I've slammed Cary Williams as an overrated player because you can complete curl patterns in front of him all day long, but perhaps he was the right addition for the Eagles. After the receiver catches the curl, at least Williams will tackle him. The 49ers defensive backfield was the opposite of Philadelphia's. The three main San Francisco corners combined for just five broken tackles, four of those by Chris Culliver. The two safeties had a bit more but still, six each for Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner isn't bad.

We also see here some more evidence of Champ Bailey's 2012 rennaissance, dropping from eight broken tackles to just two.

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. Kevin Williams of the Vikings was the surprising leader with six broken tackles, followed by four defensive linemen with five apiece: John Abraham, Jason Babin, Jonathan Babineaux, and Brett Keisel. There were two linemen with zero broken tackles despite over 40 solo tackles: Justin Smith and Jurrell Casey.

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Finally, here's the list of broken tackles by all 32 defenses. For the second straight year, two defenses were far ahead of the rest of the league when it came to broken tackles. In 2011, these two defenses were Philadelphia and Tampa Bay; in 2012, they were Philadelphia and Atlanta, although the gap between those two defenses and the rest of the league is a bit smaller than the similar gap in 2011.

Just like last season, we wanted to make sure that this wasn't an issue where the charters who did Philadelphia and Atlanta games subjectively marked more broken tackles than other charters. After all, the Eagles led the league in broken tackles on both sides of the ball, while the Falcons were fifth on offense and second on defense. So we went back and checked a lot of the Atlanta and Philadelphia broken tackles. Not only did we find that these broken tackles were pretty clear, we actually found ourselves adding more broken tackles for the Eagles, on both sides of the ball. Philadelphia just happens to combine a number of very shifty offensive players with a bunch of defenders who can't tackle.

When it comes to defenses that didn't have many broken tackles, the surprise might be Buffalo, with the lowest broken tackle rate in the league. As seen above, there are two Bills linebackers and two Bills defensive backs on the lists of the lowest broken tackle rates. This is a defense that couldn't really do much right. Their expensive defensive line couldn't pressure the quarterback and was easily pushed around in the running game. The cornerbacks struggled and the linebackers were nothing special. But the one thing this defense could do was tackle properly. The low number is definitely not a product of the specific people charting Bills games; the Bills' defense was near the bottom of the league in 2011 as well, and Bills charters marked plenty of broken tackles for C.J. Spiller and the Bills' offense last season (seventh in broken tackle rate).

Looking closer at the numbers, you also might notice that Bills had only one play all season with more than one broken tackle. San Francisco did them one better; the 49ers did not have a single play all year where we marked them with multiple broken tackles.

Broken Tackles by Team, 2012 Defenses
Defense Plays Plays w BT Total BT Pct Plays
w BT
PHI 977 83 97 8.5%
ATL 986 78 92 7.9%
BAL 1077 76 87 7.1%
NO 1072 74 88 6.9%
STL 1025 69 75 6.7%
PIT 937 58 66 6.2%
DET 981 59 64 6.0%
TEN 1066 63 73 5.9%
WAS 1021 59 65 5.8%
MIN 1070 61 72 5.7%
DAL 977 55 59 5.6%
TB 1016 57 65 5.6%
IND 985 55 60 5.6%
CAR 998 55 61 5.5%
SD 993 54 63 5.4%
OAK 971 52 61 5.4%
Defense Plays Plays w BT Total BT Pct Plays
w BT
ARI 1017 54 61 5.3%
NYJ 1000 53 57 5.3%
CHI 1009 53 62 5.3%
JAC 1079 54 57 5.0%
NYG 995 49 54 4.9%
MIA 1060 51 58 4.8%
HOU 1002 48 54 4.8%
SEA 958 45 56 4.7%
CLE 1074 50 55 4.7%
KC 954 44 51 4.6%
NE 1032 46 54 4.5%
CIN 1022 42 52 4.1%
DEN 1002 35 44 3.5%
SF 993 34 34 3.4%
GB 1026 35 45 3.4%
BUF 1027 34 35 3.3%


29 comments, Last at 15 May 2013, 1:09am

#1 by Karl Cuba // May 09, 2013 - 2:34pm

It might be interesting to see if you can teach veterans to tackle, the 49ers seem to be rather good at it but they've added Craig Dahl and Nnamdi Asomugha, who both crop up on the worst tackle rate list.

Points: 0

#3 by Scott C // May 09, 2013 - 3:41pm

I suspect that scheme plays a part in it. A scheme can lean more or less on a player's ability to make solo tackles, or rely on that ability in different contexts.

For DB's and LBs, how much man versus zone will affect most players (although in different ways).

For the line, a two-gap responsibility is rather different than a one-gap responsibility, and how a team defends the gaps likely affects how often the defender is in _extremely_ good position for a tackle, and in what conditions (how much space, what angles).

So is San Francisco's scheme designed to put players in better position more often? Or does the coaching staff avoid putting players in situations where they don't tackle as well? For Nnamdi, his skill-set is heavily skewed to man coverage on the outside, not zone coverage and tackling in the open field. His missed tackles and percentage may improve not due to the coaches improving his play at all, but instead on not asking him to do things he isn't as good at.

Points: 0

#10 by CBPodge // May 10, 2013 - 4:59am

Another way that scheme will play a part in things is how aggressive you're asking LBs and safeties to be. Its easier to miss a tackle if you're running full pelt at the runner than if you're sort of standing waiting for him.

However, scheme can do many things. It can account for many limitations for players. But no scheme can account for Craig Dahl's inability to tackle (or cover). I really hope he gets a starting job for the 49ers, because the drop from Goldson to Dahl is pretty massive.

Points: 0

#2 by MilkmanDanimal // May 09, 2013 - 2:39pm

While I appreciate the fact the "Default Image" that was stuck on the article when it was first posted was a Buccaneer (Earnest Graham), wouldn't it be more appropriate to always include for this article a picture of Sabby Piscitelli completely and utterly whiffing on a tackle?

Also, can we just nickname broken tackles as "Sabbys"?

Points: 0

#4 by Scott C // May 09, 2013 - 3:45pm

Was Eric Weddle's "miss" on Ray Rice's long 4th down run marked as a missed tackle? Or was he not in good position because he was blocked in the back?

Points: 0

#5 by dcaslin // May 09, 2013 - 5:19pm

Hey diddle diddle
Ray Rice up the middle
I think Boldin just killed that guy...

Points: 0

#6 by Chris S (not verified) // May 09, 2013 - 7:05pm

Is anyone else astonished to see GB so low on that list? I kept looking at the charts to see a handful of players.

Points: 0

#9 by DisplacedPackerFan // May 09, 2013 - 8:19pm

Not really, San Fran and Minnesota are really the only teams that ran over them. They had a negative rush defense DVOA in 9 games, 2-10% in 3 others, and over 10% in 4. They also tackled receivers fairly well. Their bad games were BAD, but for most of the games they played the run fairly well, and it wasn't just teams passing a ton because they were always behind this year.

Now one of the things this likely doesn't capture, that Green Bay was bad at, was being in a position to have a tackle broken. Peterson was often 7+ yards down field before a Packer even got near him. There probably should have been 2 or 3 guys that should have been, but they weren't. Of course there is also a Peterson run where I think there were 7 different Packers who touched him, and at least 3 who had legit position to make a tackle and didn't. But even in those awful games they stuffed him for a loss several times. Heck Sam Shields had an open field solo tackle on Peterson one time.

Don't get me wrong, the run defense was not as good as DVOA claims it was, and the Packers aren't good tacklers, but they were still plagued mostly by being out of position or not being able to get off blocks more than having a tackle broken. They were also beaten schematically several times. Sticking with the 2-4-5 defense when the other team is running a lot, doesn't make sense, that is a not a run stopping D, I don't care who your personnel is. An offensive lineman generally wins a run blocking match-up against a DB or a LB (though not as often against a LB).

Points: 0

#14 by Aaron Schatz // May 10, 2013 - 10:49am

Right. There are runs where a guy goes through a gaping hole and gets 20 yards downfield and you can be charting it and thinking, "man, I wish I could blame someone for this with a broken tackle, but nobody is even touching this guy." That doesn't mean the defense is playing well; it just means tackling is not the problem.

Points: 0

#7 by Jim C. (not verified) // May 09, 2013 - 7:21pm

Ravens fans are looking at the numbers for departing free agents Ed Reed and Dannell Ellerbe, nodding, and saying "In Ozzie We Trust."

Points: 0

#12 by cisforcookie (not verified) // May 10, 2013 - 9:47am

anyone who has watched the ravens the last 5 years could see that ed reed has been a total liability as a tackler ever since his neck injury issues. when he was younger he would throw himself around a lot, but since then he is a very unsure, cautious tackler.

Points: 0

#21 by ammek // May 11, 2013 - 5:13am

Does FO chart playoff games? Did the Ravens' tackling improve during their postseason run?

Points: 0

#24 by Aaron Schatz // May 13, 2013 - 11:25am

It doesn't look like it. With the caveat that we don't do anywhere near as much cleaning on the playoff charting, I can tell you that we have the Ravens with 28 broken tackles in four playoff games. That's an even worse rate than in the regular season. Chris Berney logged the Ravens with 13 missed tackles in the Super Bowl alone, including three by Ed Reed. There are three broken tackles on Kemoeatu in the four games which is pretty crazy for a nose tackle. There are four broken tackles just on Ronnie Hillman in the Divisional game. That's more broken tackles than Hillman had in the entire regular season.

Points: 0

#8 by thok // May 09, 2013 - 7:29pm

Out of curiosity, when you went and reviewed the Philadelphia and Atlanta broken tackle numbers, did you also review a couple of random teams as a control group? It's possible (but unlikely) that lots of play watchers are underreporting broken tackle numbers.

Points: 0

#15 by Aaron Schatz // May 10, 2013 - 10:49am

Time constraints. As I remind people all the time, we do not have the financial resources or manpower to match some of our competitors.

Points: 0

#17 by peterplaysbass // May 10, 2013 - 10:53am

Your product is outstanding given what I perceive to be fairly limited finances and manpower. There should be a stat for that - forecast success per staff size!

Footballoutsiders is the muscle-hamster of the football stats world.

Points: 0

#19 by thok // May 10, 2013 - 3:21pm

Fair enough. I just saw an unlikely but potential source of error that might be worth ruling out.

Points: 0

#11 by CBPodge // May 10, 2013 - 5:01am

Is there any sort of correlation between broken tackles for a team and DVOA (offense or defense)?

Points: 0

#13 by peterplaysbass // May 10, 2013 - 10:02am

Aaron - great article. Had a lot of fun reading it. You've got EJ Henderson listed in Erin Henderson's place, though.

Doesn't surprise me at all to see MIN's rookie safety Harrison Smith on the list. He likes to go for the big hit, which is a lot of fun to watch, but it does mean he lets a few get away.

MIN's LB Brinkley was simply a poor tackler. Have fun with him, Arizona.

Points: 0

#16 by Aaron Schatz // May 10, 2013 - 10:50am

Oops. Fixing. It's my secret anger against Erin for spelling his name like a girl.

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#18 by Aaron Brooks G… // May 10, 2013 - 1:56pm

He's taking it back. It's a fair trade for Marion becoming a girl's name.

Points: 0

#20 by Karl Cuba // May 10, 2013 - 7:26pm

Hasn't Marian been a girl's name for a very long time? As in Maid Marian, of Robin Hood fame? Merry men, tights, ringing any bells?

Points: 0

#25 by Karl Cuba // May 13, 2013 - 1:19pm

They're pronounced exactly the same. I just let it pass, you americans have a rather odd tendency to assume that nearly any conglomeration of syllables passes for a name.

Points: 0

#26 by BaronFoobarstein // May 14, 2013 - 1:23am

We Americans also pronounce Marion and Marian subtly differently from one another.

But the name thing... Though since you're an NFL fan that view may be skewed. For whatever reason the names of NFL players are far stranger than the names of the population in general.

Points: 0

#27 by Karl Cuba // May 14, 2013 - 1:19pm

I submit the collection of names from the Romneys and the Palins as evidence.

Points: 0

#28 by BaronFoobarstein // May 15, 2013 - 12:57am

Willard Mitt Romney's kids are named Taggart, Joshua, Craig, Matthew, and Bejamin. I'll grant that Willard and Taggart are uncommon names, but they're still fairly traditional names.

Michael Palin's kids are named Rachel, Thomas, and William. Fairly common traditional names.

I'd say the two lists are pretty comparable and not evidence that Americans will relatively use any syllable combination as a name.

Points: 0

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