by Vincent Verhei
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in part because they excelled at breaking tackles. Not only did they lead the league in broken tackles as a team, but their top rusher, passer, and receiver were all first or second at their position in this category. In 2014, they led the league again, and the running back and quarterback were exceptional for the second year in a row. They lacked the same physicality at wideout, though, and that might have cost them their shot at back-to-back championships.
Historically, we have defined a "broken tackle" as one of two events: either the ball carrier escapes from the grasp of the defender, or the defender is in good position for a tackle but the ball carrier jukes him out of his shoes. If the ball carrier 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 ball carrier 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.
This year, we added a third category, "dragged" broken tackles where defenders were able to bring the ball carrier to the ground, but only after the runner had gained at least 5 yards from the point where the tackle started. We seemed like a reasonable compromise to deal with plays we had struggled with in years past, where what looked like a broken tackle would end up with a defender getting marked with a tackle or assist by the NFL because he was the last player to make contact before a ballcarrier fell down ten yards later. There weren't very many of those plays; St. Louis tight end Jared Cook led the league with just five. (Ironically, he only had one other broken tackle all year.)
We recorded significantly more broken tackles in 2014 than in any previous season, but we want to make it clear: that jump has to do with our methods. We don't want these numbers to encourage any "tackling in the NFL is getting worse" narratives. Between 2009 and 2013, league totals on broken tackles fell between 1,975 (2012) and 2,236 (2009). In 2014, we marked a total of 2,644 broken tackles.
The addition of "dragged" tackles was roughly half of the reason for the increase. The other reason was that any plays where ESPN Stats & Information marked a minimum of 5 yards after contact were specifically flagged to indicate to game charters that they should be particularly mindful of broken tackles. Unfortunately, it's the nature of charting to be subjective. We believe that flagging these plays for charters actually resulted in more accurate numbers than in previous seasons. But obviously, when comparing 2013 and 2014 totals below, be aware that the average player should have a 20-25 percent increase in broken tackles per play simply because of the change in our charting methodology.
The natural variation that comes with subjectivity is tempered by the fact that 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 addition, as we have done in past years, we spent time after the season reviewing plays from the charters with the highest and lowest rates of broken tackles marked.) 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 ball carriers are able to power through defenders -- or avoid them with agility -- and which ball carriers go down quickly when there's contact.
You know who doesn't go down quickly when there's contact? Marshawn Lynch. The Seattle running back led the league in broken tackles for the second year in a row, this time by a great margin.
|Most Broken Tackles, 2014 RB|
The gap between Lynch and second-place runner Le'Veon Bell is bigger than the gap between Bell and anyone else in the top 10. There's no question that Lynch is the most difficult runner in the league to get to the ground. Need some examples? Here's Lynch breaking three tackles on one play against San Francisco:
And here he is breaking four tackles (while Ricardo Lockette picks up three blocks) on one play against Arizona:
To a large degree, this table mirrors the overall rushing yardage leaders, so there aren't too many surprises. Justin Forsett is lower than one might have guessed, and Frank Gore finished with 19 broken tackles, one shy of being listed. On the other hand, however limited Trent Richardson may be, it must be said that he's harder to tackle than his reputation would suggest. His broken tackle stats were high in both 2013 and 2014. Lynch was in the top five in total touches (runs plus receptions). Is it fair to say that he amassed so many broken tackles mainly because he got the ball so often? No. No, it isn't fair to say that at all. On a per-touch basis, Lynch is still atop the field, though the gap between him and his peers is much more narrow.
|Highest Broken Tackle Rate, 2014 RB||Lowest Broken Tackle Rate, 2014 RB|
|Player||Team||BT||Runs||Rec||Touch||BT/ Touch||Player||Team||BT||Runs||Rec||Touch||BT/ Touch|
|Marshawn Lynch||SEA||88||280||37||317||27.8%||Latavius Murray||OAK||3||82||17||99||3.0%|
|Ahmad Bradshaw||IND||33||90||38||128||25.8%||Stevan Ridley||NE||3||94||4||98||3.1%|
|Roy Helu||WAS||21||40||42||82||25.6%||Alfred Blue||HOU||6||169||15||184||3.3%|
|Carlos Hyde||SF||21||83||12||95||22.1%||Jonas Gray||NE||3||89||1||90||3.3%|
|C.J. Anderson||DEN||46||179||34||213||21.6%||Isaiah Crowell||CLE||6||148||9||157||3.8%|
|Khiry Robinson||NO||16||76||8||84||19.0%||Ronnie Hillman||DEN||6||106||21||127||4.7%|
|Darren Sproles||PHI||18||56||41||97||18.6%||Doug Martin||TB||7||134||13||147||4.8%|
|Pierre Thomas||NO||16||45||45||90||17.8%||Matt Asiata||MIN||10||164||44||208||4.8%|
|Eddie Lacy||GB||51||246||42||288||17.7%||Andre Ellington||ARI||13||200||47||247||5.3%|
|Trent Richardson||IND||32||159||27||186||17.2%||Robert Turbin||SEA||5||74||16||90||5.6%|
|Minimum 80 touches|
Lynch was one of five runners to average a broken tackle on at least one-fifth of his touches, and only one of the other four was able to sustain that rate on even half as many touches as Lynch did.
The Saints, meanwhile, have acquired an entire depth chart full of tackle-breakers. While Mark Ingram narrowly missed the top ten list for total broken tackles, his teammates Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas both made the top ten in broken tackles per touch, a list that also includes Darren Sproles, who spent three seasons in New Orleans before joining Philadelphia last season. Clearly the Saints place a lot of value on running backs who can create their own holes. (Thomas is currently an unsigned free agent.) At the other end of the spectrum we have New England, a team that relies on a rotating cast of specialized runners, none of whom specialize in breaking tackles. Stevan Ridley and Jonas Gray both made the bottom ten here, while Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden both had rates right around 10 percent, which would be close to league average for the position.
Last year, Cam Newton was the dominant leader here, breaking ten more tackles than any other quarterback. This year, perhaps due to the ankle surgery he underwent before the season, he fell back to the pack somewhat, leaving a pair of NFC West youngsters to battle for the crown.
|Most Broken Tackles, 2014 QB|
Russell Wilson finishes second here for the second year in a row. He actually led all quarterbacks in broken tackles beyond the line of scrimmage, but Colin Kaepernick led the league in "Houdinis" (a term coined by Bill Simmons for quarterbacks who escape sacks) and trumped Wilson in total broken tackles.
[ad placeholder 3]
Andrew Luck and Blake Bortles are both young, big, and athletic, and right now that's about all they have in common. Michael Vick and Geno Smith both made the top ten, which may be the first time ever that two Jets quarterbacks have made the top ten in anything positive. Broken tackle rate stats don't really work for quarterbacks, because even if we include sacks as touches, they still get tackled so rarely that it can be hard to draw meaningful conclusions. Peyton Manning only broke four tackles last year, but technically he broke more tackles per "touch" than either Kaepernick or Wilson. Still, it's clear that some quarterbacks go down easier than others. Philip Rivers had 22 runs (not counting kneeldowns) and was sacked 36 times, but he broke only tackle all season. Other one-break wonders include Mark Sanchez, Kyle Orton, Nick Foles, and Shaun Hill.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The following table shows the top ten receivers in broken tackles, along with the ten receivers with the worst rates of broken tackle per touch (minimum 32 touches):
|Most Broken Tackles, 2014 WR/TE||Lowest Broken Tackle Rates, 2014 WR/TE (min. 32 touches)|
|Rob Gronkowski||NE||TE||24||0||82||82||29.3%||Greg Olsen||CAR||TE||1||0||84||84||1.2%|
|Martellus Bennett||CHI||TE||19||0||90||90||21.1%||Roddy White||ATL||WR||1||0||80||80||1.3%|
|Dez Bryant||DAL||WR||18||0||88||88||20.5%||Eric Decker||NYJ||WR||1||0||74||74||1.4%|
|Golden Tate||DET||WR||18||5||99||104||17.3%||Calvin Johnson||DET||WR||1||0||71||71||1.4%|
|Antonio Brown||PIT||WR||18||4||129||133||13.5%||Antonio Gates||SD||TE||1||0||69||69||1.4%|
|Julio Jones||ATL||WR||14||1||104||105||13.3%||Brandin Cooks||NO||WR||1||7||53||60||1.7%|
|Odell Beckham||NYG||WR||14||7||91||98||14.3%||Mychal Rivera||OAK||TE||1||0||58||58||1.7%|
|Delanie Walker||TEN||TE||14||0||63||63||22.2%||Andre Holmes||OAK||WR||1||0||47||47||2.1%|
|Kendall Wright||TEN||WR||14||4||57||61||23.0%||Scott Chandler||BUF||TE||1||0||47||47||2.1%|
|Steve Smith||BAL||WR||13||0||79||79||16.5%||Brian Hartline||MIA||WR||1||0||39||39||2.6%|
It might seem obvious that a physical freak like Rob Gronkowski would break tons of tackles, but he had only four in 2013, a low number even considering that he played only seven games. Golden Tate, last year's leader, still ranked highly. He was sorely missed by Seattle, whose remaining tight ends and receivers had only 27 broken tackles combined.
[ad placeholder 4]
There are a lot of question marks in Tennessee, but at least Marcus Mariota will have a pair of targets in Delanie Walker and Kendall Wright who can do something with the ball in their hands. Finally, as I have done many times before, I must point out that Odell Beckham made the top ten in yet another statistic despite missing a quarter of the season. As for the worst broken tackle rates, all I can really say is man, that's an awfully good group of players for guys who are supposed to be worst in the league at anything. It's safe to say that tackle-breaking ability is pretty low on the list of what's required to make a great receiver.
As mentioned, Seattle led the league in broken tackles for the second year in a row. Six of the top nine teams in broken tackles per play made the playoffs, while seven of the bottom eight teams missed the postseason. DPI are included in the play count because they can be marked for a Houdini by the quarterback.
|Broken Tackles by Offenses, 2014|
|Offense||Plays (incl. DPI)||Plays
|Total BT||Pct Plays w BT|
|Offense||Plays (incl. DPI)||Plays
|Total BT||Pct Plays w BT|
Comparing 2013 to 2014, Minnesota had the biggest drop in broken tackles, for very obvious reasons. Despite the change in our methodology, the Vikings went from 7.6 percent of plays marked with broken tackles in 2013 to just 5.8 percent. Three other teams also saw this rate drop by at least 0.5 percent: Carolina, Arizona, and Philadelphia. Five teams saw their rate of broken tackles increase by over 2.5 percent, more than twice the league average caused by the methodology change: Washington, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Tennessee, and Dallas. Click here for the article on 2013 broken tackles (offense). Click here for the article on 2012 broken tackles (offense).