## Sacks Are Coming From Lighter Players

In 1994, the “average” sack came from a player that weighted 266 pounds. Wait, what do you mean by average sack? Well, if you look at all 937 sacks in 1994, and identify the weight of the sacker on each sack, you can calculate the weight of the average sack in each season. John Randle was 290 pounds, and he had 13.5 sacks that year, so he gets 13.5 times as much weight a player with one sack. The graph below shows the weight of the player producing an average sack in each year since 1982. As you can see, it peaked in the mid-’90s, and has declined slightly since.

However, players in general are getting heavier, including in the front seven. The graph below shows the average weight of a player in the front 7 — weighted by the number of starts by such a player — for each year since 1982. That data is in orange; the blue line showing the average sack weight is still included in the chart for reference.
[click to continue…]

## Jessie Tuggle was mired on terrible defenses but still made 5 Pro Bowls

Jessie Tuggle was a Georgia man. He was born in Griffin, Georgia and starred at Griffin High. He went to Valdosta State, in Valdosta, Georgia, and was a three-time All-Conference pick and the Gulf South Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in his senior season. He went undrafted, so he joined the Atlanta Falcons for training camp in 1987. Tuggle made the team, and proceeded to miss just one game due to injury over his first 12 seasons. Tuggle wound up playing his entire 14-year career with the Falcons, set the Atlanta record for games played by a defensive player, and made five Pro Bowls. And if he hadn’t been on some of the worst defenses of his era, he might be remembered more fondly today.

How bad were the Falcons defenses during the Tuggle era? The graph below shows Atlanta’s defensive DVOA in each year (using estimated DVOA for ’87 and ’88) plotted against the left Y-Axis (and remember, a positive number indicates a below-average defense) and the Falcons rank in points allowed plotted against the right Y-Axis (here, a larger number means a worse defense). In ’87, ’89, ’92, ’93, ’94, ’96, 99, and ’00, the Falcons defense had a DVOA of worse than 10%: [click to continue…]

## Which Defensive Stars Played On The Best Defenses?

Chris McAlister played 137 games in his NFL career: 135 with the Ravens from 1999 to 2008, and then 2 with the Saints in 2009 (given that he accumulated 0 points of AV with New Orleans, I’m excluding that from the analysis). He was the 10th overall pick in the ’99 draft, and a first-team All-Pro in ’03 and ’04, and a Pro Bowler in ’06. Most notably, he played on very good defenses almost every season of his career. In 10 years in Baltimore, the Ravens defense never ranked outside of the top 10 and ranked in the top 2 more often than not. You can calculate McAlister’s average team’s defensive DVOA by weighting his DVOA in each year (where he received at least one point of AV) by his number of games played that year as follows:

As it turns out, among players with at least 70 points of career AV, his average grade of -18.1% is the highest grade of any player (Jerome Brown is at -18.2% but he had only 48 points of career AV, as his life was cut tragically short). The full list of players below. [click to continue…]

## Concentration Index and Defensive Sacks

Are sacks more highly concentrated among a few players now? Look at the 2016 Raiders: Khalil Mack, who won the Defensive Player of the Year award by one vote over Von Miller, had 11 sacks. But Mack and Bruce Irvin (7.0 sacks) were the only Oakland defenders to record more than three sacks last year, and only six Raiders finished the year with a sack. In Atlanta, Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks, but only eight other Falcons had a sack, and no other Falcon had more than five. Meanwhile, the ’86 Oilers had 17 players record at least one sack and no player with more than five sacks!

In 2014, J.J. Watt had 20.5 of Houston’s 38 sacks. And in 2012, Aldon Smith had just over half of the 49ers sacks, too. But are things really getting more concentrated? Memory can play tricks on us: after all, in 1989, Tim Harris had 19.5 sacks for the Packers, which represented 57% of all Green Bay sacks that year.

As it turns out, the Raiders and Falcons weren’t great examples to measure the modern NFL. They were the two most concentrated teams in the NFL last year in terms of sacks. Let’s look at the Raiders sack totals more closely, and use the same methodology we’ve used the last few days (also known as the Herfindahl index): [click to continue…]

## Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, Kwon Alexander, and Tackle Leaders

Kuechly’s stats match his hype

Do you know who led the NFL in tackles in 2016? It was Tampa Bay’s second-year linebacker Kwon Alexander, with 108 solo tackles.  If you give half-credit for assists, Kwon – who had 37 assists — would get 126.5 total tackles.  That would be the second-most in the league, just behind Seattle linebacker  Bobby Wagner (86 solos, 82 assists, for 127 total tackles).

Tackles aren’t a great stat for a lot of reasons.  One reason is the statistic treats all tackles the same.  Another is it ignores opportunity: the 49ers led the NFL last year with 855 total tackles (again, treating assists as half-tackles), which helped safety Antoine Bethea rank 9th in the league in solo tackles.  That’s because the 49ers defense was on the field a ton last year; meanwhile, the Eagles recorded the fewest total tackles in the NFL last season with just 699.  Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham had 67 solos and 81 assists last year, but that total looks a lot better when you realize he was responsible for about 12% of all Eagles tackles in 2016.

In addition to looking at total tackle numbers as a percentage of his team’s tackles, there’s one other adjustment worth making. Carolina’s Luke Kuechly had 86.5 total tackles last year, good enough for 11.0% of Carolina’s 785 total tackles. But Kuechly played in just 10 games! If we multiply his 11.0% tackle share number by 16/10 — in other words, pro-rating for missed games — that means Kuechly gets credit for a whopping 17.6% of all Panthers tackles.

Another player who benefits from this sort of adjustment is Bears linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who had a great first season in Chicago. Freeman had 98 total tackles, or 12.5% of the Bears total tackles, despite missing four games.  If you pro-rate those numbers, he gets credit for 16.6% of all Chicago tackles, second in the league behind Kuechly.

Do this for every defensive player in the NFL, and the top three players in adjusted total tackle share are Kuechly, Freeman, and Wagner.  Alexander, while still impressive, drops to 7th via this method. Below are the top 75 players in pro-rated adjusted total tackle share. [click to continue…]

## Guest Post: Linebackers and the Hall of Fame

Today’s guest post comes from one of the longest followers of this blog (and its predecessor), Richie Wohlers. Richie is 44-year-old accountant from Southern California who is a Dolphins fan despite never being to Florida. As always, we thank our guest posters for contributing.

This is the first part in my series looking at the NFL Hall of Fame.  I am going to take a look at which players are in the HOF, and look at some objective attributes of HOFers.  I am only going to focus on players who played any part of their career after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.  While this will include many players who played in the pre-merger days, the bulk of the careers will have at least been played since 1960 with at least 21 combined teams.  Before the AFL came along there were generally many fewer teams, so things like draft position and Pro Bowl/All Pro honors are more difficult to compare.  Also, the game of pro football was much different before the 1950s.  I am mostly going to stick with looking at the few statistics that can be compared across positions, such as All Pros, Approximate Value, etc.

I created a very quick and simple formula to give each player a career score based on the average of six statistical categories (All-Pros, Pro Bowls, Weighted AV, Total AV, Super Bowl Appearances, Super Bowl wins) at a position.  Each category is weighted equally (though, the categories are related, and winning a Super Bowl essentially becomes worth 2 categories).  The average HOF player at each position will have a score of 100.  This makes an easy (though not exhaustive) way to rank careers, and to quickly see if anybody is missing from the HOF.  I feel that using honors (Pro Bowl, All Pro) helps factor in peak value, AV factors in total value and Super Bowls helps factor in players on winning teams, who HOF voters seem to favor.

Today I am taking a look at linebackers. [click to continue…]

## NFL Gray Ink Sack Leaders

Watt has a lot of gray ink in a short amount of time

Gray Ink tests are fun ways to measure player dominance by giving some — but not too much — credit to longevity. In simplest form, gray ink tests give 10 points for finishing 1st in a category, 9 points for finishing 2nd, and so on. Let’s use Kevin Greene, third all-time (shorthand for since 1982, of course) in career sacks with 160, and Bruce Smith, the career leader with 200, as examples.

Smith was the better player — he was an 11-time Pro Bowler and an 8-time AP first-team All-Pro, compared to just 5/2 for Greene — and consequently was a clear first-ballot Hall of Famer. For whatever reason, it took Greene 12 years, but this summer, he will finally be inducted into the Hall. Given the fact that Smith has 25% more career sacks than Greene, you probably think that Smith was the better pass rusher. To that, the Gray Ink test says not so fast, my friend. [click to continue…]

## J.J. Watt, and Sack Leaders On A Trailing 4-Year Basis

The best player in the AFC South is in this photo.

Good article from Peter King this morning on J.J. Watt and the injury struggles he dealt with last year.  King also noted that Watt has 69 sacks over the last four seasons, the most in the NFL.  In fact, that’s the second most by any player in any four-year stretch over at least the last 31 years. FRom 1985 to 1988, Reggie White had 70 sacks, and he did it in seven fewer games (he missed the first three games of ’85 due to being a member of USFL,1 and then four games in ’87 due to the players’ strike.)  Of course, White did play in a friendlier era for sacks (2.63 sacks per game vs. 2.37 over the last four years), so cross-era comparisons always have their limitations.

But I thought it would be interesting, especially in light of Jared Allen retiring, to look at the leaders in sacks on a trailing four year basis: [click to continue…]

1. The Eagles, after starting 0-2, paid a million dollars to Memphis to essentially buy White from the league. []

## Defensive Player of the Year Award: 2007-2014

On Monday, I looked at the Defensive Player of the Year voting in every year from 2000 to 2006. Today, the last eight years.

2007: Bob Sanders, Indianapolis Colts

AP voting: Sanders (31), Patrick Kerney (4) (Seattle), Albert Haynesworth (4) (Titans), Antonio Cromartie (3) (Chargers), DeMarcus Ware (3) (Cowboys), Mike Vrabel (2) (Patriots), James Harrison (1) (Steelers), Ronde Barber (1) (Buccaneers), Patrick Willis (1) (49ers), Mario Williams (1) (Texans)

Sanders picked up 62% of the vote, yet nine other names split the remaining ballots.  It is weird to think of a player like Kerney as being the runner up for DPOY. But in his first year in Seattle, Kerney had 14.5 sacks, forced five fumbles, and recorded an interception, good enough to get him the KC101 NFC Defensive Player of the Year award.

But Sanders was the clear choice for DPOY. Only a couple of random places (like the Kansas City Star, which went for Ware, the New York Daily News (Cromartie), or the Miami Herald, which went for Vrabel because LBWINZ) didn’t select Sanders as the top defender that season.

Verdict: A worthy DPOY season for Sanders. And the first of back-to-back DPOY-caliber seasons that would land Haynesworth a \$100M contract.

2008: James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers

AP voting: Harrison (22), DeMarcus Ware (13) (Cowboys), Ed Reed (8) (Ravens), Albert Haynesworth (5) (Titans), Troy Polamalu (2) (Steelers)

This was another close vote: Harrison didn’t quite get half of the AP voting, but did win by a healthy margin. This was far from a unanimous seletion: Peter King at Sports Illustrated, John Clayton at ESPN, and Mark Gaughan at the Buffalo News all chose Ware, Rick Gosselin at the Dallas Morning News and Leonard Shapiro at the Miami Herald selected Reed, while the Sporting News poll of players, coaches, and general managers landed on Haynesworth. The KC101 awards went to Harrison and Ware as the top defenders in each conference.

The Steelers defense was outstanding in 2008.  It finishes two standard deviations above average in points allowed, and ranked as the 10th best pass defense ever.  And Pittsburgh ranked 1st or 2nd in yards per carry allowed, rushing yards allowed, and rushing touchdowns allowed. Harrison, of course, cemented his play in ’08 with one of the greatest plays in NFL history, a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.

Verdict: Harrison’s 16 sacks finished 4th in the NFL, and he was second on the team in tackles.  A very deserving choice for the award. As for Ware, this was the closest he ever got to winning the DPOY award.  In fact, he received just 3 other votes over the remainder of his career from AP writers, all in 2007 (although he did have a DPOY-caliber year in ’11, too).

2009: Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers

AP voting: Woodson (28), Darrelle Revis (14) (Jets), Darren Sharper (3) (Saints), Elvis Dumervil (3) (Broncos), Jared Allen (2) (Vikings)

One of the more interesting DPOY races, as the top two players played the same position — but in very different ways. Revis was a dominant shutdown corner, having one of the greatest individual coverage seasons in recent history. Woodson was a great coverage corner who also played in the slot, or at safety, and was a pretty effective blitzer, too. The AP voters preferred Woodson’s all-around game at a 2:1 ratio, but there were dissenters.

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King selected Revis, as did the New York Daily News. USA Today had Revis winning by the narrowest of margins over Woodson and Dumervil. But Woodson did take home the majority of the hardware, including from Pro Football Weekly / Pro Football Writers of America and the Sporting News and the majority of sources out there. There were a couple of straggler votes — Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer chose Dumervil, Leonard Shapiro of the Miami Herald selected Sharper — but this was largely a two-man race.

Verdict: The ’09 Jets led the league in net yards per attempt allowed, points allowed, yards allowed, first downs allowed, passing yards allowed, and passing touchdowns allowed. Revis was the main reason for the defense’s success, and I’m not sure he had a finer year. Both he and Woodson appear to be future Hall of Famers. Of note: Woodson was named the Defensive Back of the Year by the NFL Alumni voting, and each player took home the Defensive Player of the Conference award from he KC101 organization.

2010: Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers

AP voting: Polamalu (17), Clay Matthews (15) (Packers), James Harrison (8) (Steelers), Julius Peppers (6) (Bears), Brian Urlacher (2) (Bears), Haloti Ngata (1) (Ravens), Ed Reed (1) (Ravens)

The Steelers safety received just 34% of the vote, narrowly edging Matthews for the AP honor.  Was Polamalu the best defender in 2010? Well, in the Sporting News poll, Matthews took home the award with the voting going 188-148; the Packers outside linebacker was also the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers choice. As you would suspect, Peter King was again an outlier, going with Peppers as his top choice. Polamalu received the AP nod by a tiny margin, but

Verdict: Matthews deserves at least as much credit as Polamalu for what he did in 2010. The fact that the AP Trophy is considered “official” is kind of silly, but that goes double when the voting was this close. The Packers outside linebacker may be building a Hall of Fame career, and it would be ridiculous to think that two out of 50 votes from certain AP writers in one season would make a difference in that outcome. Then again, while Polamalu seems like a HOF lock, if he came in second place in ’10, would his case be any different?

2011: Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens

AP voting: Suggs (21), Jared Allen (14) (Vikings), Justin Smith (6) (49ers), Jason Pierre-Paul (5) (Giants), Patrick Willis (2) (49ers), NaVorro Bowman (1) (49ers), Charles Woodson (1) (Packers)

Suggs was also the Pro Football Weekly / Pro Football Writers of America DPOY and the choice of a panel of 8 writers at Sports Illustrated.  The Sporting News chose Allen as its top player, with DeMarcus Ware as the runner up there.  The KC 101 chose Suggs and Allen as the top player of each conference. This wasn’t unanimous, and it wasn’t a runaway win, either, but Suggs was a legitimate winner. The Ravens defense ranked in the top 3 in points, yards, net yards per pass attempt, yards per carry, and rushing yards, while Suggs had 14 sacks.

Verdict: Allen had 22 sacks, making it the second most impressive sack season since ’82. Suggs was a worthy choice, but Allen — who is a borderline HOF candidate — deserves a ton of credit for his monster season while playing for a 3-13 team.

2012: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

AP voting: Watt (49), Von Miller (1) (Broncos)

This was one of the most dominant defensive seasons in NFL history, and that is reflected in the voting. Consider this: over the course of their careers, Reed (29) and Polamalu (22) combined for 51 DPOY votes from the AP. Meanwhile, Watt had 49 just this year.  Aldon Smith was named the KC 101 NFC DPOY and the runner up according to The Sporting News, but Watt was basically a unanimous choice here.

Verdict: J.J. Watt is the man.

2013: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

AP voting: Kuechly (13), Robert Mathis (11.5) (Colts), Earl Thomas (7.5) (Seahawks), Robert Quinn (6) (Rams), Richard Sherman (4) (Seahawks), J.J. Watt (2) (Texans)

Sandwiched in between Watt’s two scorched-earth campaigns was one of the closest DPOY races in NFL history.  Mathis actually received more All-Pro votes than Kuechly, although the Colts star wasn’t the only one with a good case for the award.

The Pro Football Writers of America and Sports Illustrated chose Quinn, although the Sporting News also went with Kuechly. Pro Football Focus chose Watt, while the KC101 went with Kuechly in the NFC and Mathis in the AFC.  Oh, and the Seahawks had a historically dominant pass defense and two very deserving candidates, too.

Verdict: There were a number of great candidates during the ’13 season. Kuechly may be building a HOF career: he was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, the DPOY in 2013, and has been a first-team All-Pro by the AP in 2014.   Last year may have been his best season, and he was Pro Football Focus’ top inside linebacker. But I’ll still always remember him as this guy.

2014: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

A unanimous winner, the first of its kind since the AP began giving out this award.  Watt also received 13 votes in the MVP voting, so it was that sort of season.  Everyone chose Watt as the league’s best player, although it’s worth noting that Richard Sherman did get chosen by the KC101 as the top defender in the NFC.

Verdict: J.J. Watt is the man.

## Thoughts on Muhammad Wilkerson’s Contract Situation

This week, a pair of Jets fans have weighed in on the contract standoff between Muhammad Wilkerson and the New York Jets. Jason at OverTheCap explained why it may be difficult for the two sides to get a true sense of Wilkerson’s market value. Jason points out that the 3-4 defensive end market is pretty weird: You have J.J. Watt at \$16.67M per year, then a big drop to Calais Campbell at \$11M per year, Jurrell Casey (who was a 4-3 DT when he signed his contract) at \$9M per year, and then another big drop. After those three comes Jason Hatcher (also a hybrid 4-3 DT/3-4 DE player) at \$6.88M, Desmond Bryant at \$6.8M, and then Allen Bailey at \$5M per year. And that’s it: no other 3-4 defensive end is making more than five million per year, while Wilkerson reportedly wants upwards of \$14M per season. Perhaps we should also include Buffalo’s Kyle Williams — the Bills seemingly switch between a 3-4 and a 4-3 every month — who is making about \$10M per year.

But there are three big problems when looking at these contracts and trying to structure a fair deal for Wilkerson, and all three point in Wilkerson’s favor. [click to continue…]

## Ty Law’s 2005 Season and the Best Interception Seasons Ever

You probably have not given much thought to Ty Law since he retired, and you almost certainly haven’t given much thought to what Law did as a member of the Jets in 2005. But it was a pretty remarkable season.

Law had 10 interceptions that year. That number may not sound like a lot to you — it’s not a record, and we rarely focus on interception totals — but no player has had more than 10 interceptions in a season since 1981. Since Everson Walls of the Cowboys recorded 11 interceptions in 1981, eleven players have intercepted exactly ten passes in a single season. Of those, Law played on the team that faced by far the fewest passes, and he did so in an era where it was very difficult to record interceptions. That’s why, by the metric I’ll describe below, it’s the most impressive interception season in NFL history.

First, I calculated each player’s individual interception rate, defined as his number of interceptions divided by his team’s pass attempts faced.1 The record here was set in 1946 by Pittsburgh’s Bill Dudley, a former first overall pick. That year, Dudley led the NFL in rushing… and punt return yards… and interceptions! Dudley intercepted 10 passes, while the Steelers faced just 162 pass attempts, giving him an interception on 6.2% of opponent dropbacks. Perhaps most amazing, the Steelers leading receivers each had just ten catches, which means Dudley caught as many passes on defense as any Pittsburgh player did on offense in 1946.

Law’s 10 interceptions came against 463 opponent pass attempts, giving him an interception on 2.2% of opposing pass plays. That remains the highest rate in a single season since Walls picked off a pass on 2.4% of opponent pass plays in 1982. But obviously interception rates have been sharply declining, which is what makes Law’s accomplishment so remarkable. [click to continue…]

1. Perhaps in a future version, I will adjust for games missed due to injury. []

## Justin Houston, DeMarcus Ware, and Adjusted Sack Rates

Justin Houston had 22 sacks last year for the Chiefs, just one sack shy of breaking the modern NFL record. Houston did it while playing a full slate of games for the Chiefs, and Kansas City faced 591 pass attempts last year (including sacks). That means Houston recorded a sack on 3.7% of Kansas City’s opponent dropbacks.

That’s very good, although it’s just the 11th best rate since 1982. But we have to remember that sack rates have been steadily declining over the past few decades. For example, from 1982 to 2014, the average sack rate was 6.87%, but the 2014 rate was just 6.35%. In other words, we would need to increase the sack rate last year by 8.2% in order to adjust for era. So if we adjust for Houston’s 3.7% average by multiplying that average by 108.2%, his adjusted sack rate jumps to 4.03%. And that’s the second best rate since 1982. [click to continue…]

## The Safety Championship Belt, Part IV

On Monday, we began our journey through the history of the Safety Championship Belt — i.e., who held the title of best safety in each year from 1950 to 1970. And then on Tuesday, we revealed the winners from 1971 to 1990.  Yesterday brought us from 1991 to 2002. Today, the final twelve years.

2003: Roy Williams, Dallas Cowboys / Rodney Harrison, New England Patriots

Hey, for eight months, Buster Douglas was once the best boxer in the land, too. Williams became something of a punch line over time, and his five Pro Bowl selections only show how that honor can devolve into little more than a name recognition contest. But there once was a time when the Oklahoma Roy Williams was a dominant player, and that time was 2003. At his best, Williams was as feared as any safety in the league, a physical player who was essentially a linebacker playing in the defensive backfield. While Ray Lewis justifiably ran away with the Defensive Player of the Year award that season, Houston’s John McClain actually selected Williams as his top defender in all of football in 2003.

The ’03 Cowboys, you might forget, finished in the top four in most major categories on defense, including points allowed, yards allowed, first downs allowed, passing yards allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards allowed, and yards per carry allowed. Here’s another way to put it: the team went 10-6 with Quincy Carter at quarterback.

For all the success he had with New England, whenever I think of Rodney Harrison my mind goes to what he and Junior Seau did on the ’98 Chargers. That team had the 3rd worst Relative ANY/A of any team in the last 20 years,1 as Ryan Leaf and Craig Whelihan shared the quarterback duties. Seau and Harrison were seemingly the only thing keeping the Chargers from 0-16, and the duo guided San Diego to a first-place ranking in yards allowed.

That’s a small diversion to remind you about how good Harrison was on a bad team; in New England, we saw how valuable he could be on a good one.  Harrison had “only” three interceptions and three sacks in 2003, but he added two more interceptions in a dominant run during the playoffs.  Harrison was a first-team All-Pro selection by the AP and Dr. Z, and Peter King chose Harrison as his DPOY (King wasn’t on an island here; Rick Gosselin at the Dallas Morning News had Harrison as his runner-up to Lewis, and Ira Miller at the San Francisco Chronicle also picked Harrison as the best defender in football.)

Just about everyone who didn’t pick Williams or Harrison as the best safety in football in ’03 selected our next player, who clearly took over the title the following year. [click to continue…]

1. Ahead of only the ’05 49ers and ’10 Panthers. []

## The Safety Championship Belt, Part III

On Monday, we began our journey through the history of the Safety Championship Belt — i.e., identifying who held the title of best safety in football in each year from 1950 to 1970. Yesterday, we continued from 1971 to 1990.  Today, we pick back up with a familiar name at the top of the list.

1991: Ronnie Lott, Los Angeles Raiders

In ’91, Lott moves to Los Angeles and donned the silver and black, the perfect look for one of the game’s most ferocious hitters.  The move revitalized his career, as Lott switched positions from free to strong safety.  The move worked, as he registered 93 tackles and a league-high 8 interceptions.  Four of the major services (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers, Pro Football Weekly, and Sporting News) named Lott a first-team All-Pro, but there were more honors in store for the 31-year-old.

The NFL’s Players Association named him Defensive Back of the Year, while the Washington Post and Newsday named him Comeback Player of the Year (while Lott was an All-Pro in ’90, he missed substantial time with knee injuries, and the 49ers allowed him to move on in part because they thought Lott was essentially done). He even finished tied for fourth with Derrick Thomas for the AP Defensive Player of the Year award (behind Pat Swilling, Seth Joyner, and Reggie White).  And Tom Ford at the Tampa Tribune named Lott the AFC Defensive Player of the Year.

One other safety also was named first-team All-Pro by four different organizations in 1991, but he would have to wait a year to earn the championship belt.

1992: Steve Atwater, Denver Broncos

Atwater and Lott were neck-and-neck for the title of best safety of ’91; the same could be said of Atwater and Buffalo’s Henry Jones in ’92.  But Atwater absolutely deserves a spot on our list somewhere, and by ’92, he had established himself as among the elite. If you want to take the longer view, the Broncos star safety was one of the game’s best defenders for a decade. [click to continue…]

## The Safety Championship Belt, Part II

Yesterday, we began our journey through the history of the Safety Championship Belt: i.e., the history of who was the titleholder of “Best Safety in Football” in each year from 1950 to 1970. Today, the next twenty years.

At the University of Texas, Bradley was a running quarterback and punter before moving to defensive back. That position was a natural fit for Bradley, who would become the best safety in the NFL during the early ’70s.  In 1971, he led the NFL with 11 interceptions and 248 return yards, and was a first-team All-Pro choice by the Associated Press, Pro Football Writers, and Pro Football Weekly (the NEA selected Rick Volk and Paul Krause that year).  In ’72, Bradley’s nine interceptions led the league, and he was a unanimous first-team All-Pro selection (AP, PFW, PFW, and NEA).  Bradley would make the Pro Bowl in ’73, but his career arc had peaked in ’72.

1972 (Super Bowl): Jake Scott, Miami Dolphins

Scott was named the MVP of Super Bowl VII, capping the team’s 17-0 season. That’s worth a mention, particularly given the fact that Scott was a Pro Bowler every year from ’71 to ’75, and was named a first-team All-Pro by at least one organization in the last four of those years. He was probably the second or third best safety each of those seasons, so the Super Bowl MVP means he earns at least an honorable mention here. Scott was one of two safeties that made the AP All-Pro team in ’73, but that year, he wasn’t even the best safety on his own team. [click to continue…]

## The Safety Championship Belt, Part I

Bill Barnwell, among others, has written about “championship belts” at different positions, with the idea that the title of best player at position X can be passed around like a heavyweight belt. With the retirement of Troy Polamalu last week, there has been some discussion as to whether the Steelers is the greatest safety of all time (for some convincing arguments to the contrary, you can read Neil Paine’s take here).

As complicated as it is to evaluate quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, that’s child’s play compared to comparing individual defensive players. Who is the greatest safety of all time? That’s an even more impossible question to answer, so I’m not going to even try. Instead, today and tomorrow, I’m going to look at who held the unofficial title of best safety in the league over the last 65 years. [click to continue…]

## Weekend Trivia: Two All-Pro Safeties

The last three seasons, Seattle’s Earl Thomas has been named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press, among others.  In each of the last two years, his teammate at the safety position, Kam Chancellor, was a second-team honoree from the AP. Last year, Thomas was a runaway selection, while Chancellor was just two votes shy of being a first-team choice (which made up for the joke that was the AP second-team All-Pro safety situation from ’13).

Over the course of football history, there have been several organizations that have awarded All-Pro teams.  Principal among those have been the Associated Press, the Sporting News, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, the Pro Football Writers Association, and Pro Football Weekly.  Can you name the last time that any one of those organizations named two safeties from the same team as first-team All-Pros? [click to continue…]

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## Cornerback Targets

According to Pro Football Focus, Richard Sherman was targeted just 65 times last season. That number is even more remarkably low when you consider that Sherman was in on 552 pass plays for the Seahawks last season.

We all know that Sherman generally sticks to the defense’s left side of the field; as a result, offenses tend to put their best wide receiver on the offense’s left, in order to avoid having to throw at Sherman. But that’s what I want to look at today: which cornerbacks are targeted the least?

Based on data from Pro Football Focus, the average cornerback was targeted on 16.4% of his pass snaps last year. That means an average cornerback would be expected to see about 90.5 targets on 552 snaps; in other words, Sherman saw 25.5 fewer targets than we would expect.

That’s the most impressive number of any cornerback in the league last year, with “impressive” here being a synonym for not being targeted. The second largest number belongs to Darrelle Revis, which perhaps isn’t much of a surprise, either. While with the Patriots, Revis was targeted 79 times on 606 pass snaps, or 20.4 fewer targets than we would expect.

The table below shows that data for each cornerback that was in on at least 175 snaps last season: [click to continue…]

## Can the Jets or Rams Send Three Defensive Linemen to the Pro Bowl?

Sons of Anarchy.

I’ve already spent some time this off-season discussing the Rams fantastic front four. Robert Quinn made the Pro Bowl last season, and he’s a good bet to make the trip to Hawaii again this year as long as he stays healthy. Adding Aaron Donald to a line that also has Chris Long and Michael Brockers means St. Louis should have the best 4-3 defensive line in the NFL this year.

The best 3-4 defensive line? That honor probably belongs to the New York Jets. Muhammad Wilkerson made the Pro Bowl last year and would have been a second-team AP All-Pro choice if that organization knew anything about how to create a ballot. The other defensive end, Sheldon Richardson, was the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. The nose tackle, Damon Harrison, was easily the top run-stuffing tackle in the NFL last year according to Pro Football Focus, and was PFF’s highest-graded nose tackle overall.  You will probably find this hard to believe, but Rex Ryan has said that he wants to have all three of the Jets starting defensive linemen make the Pro Bowl.

How rare is that? Pretty rare — in fact, a 3-4 line has never sent all three players to the Pro Bowl. But even among 4-3 teams, sending three defensive linemen to Hawaii is a very rare feat. Although you might be surprised about when it last happened.

Trivia hint 1 Show

Trivia hint 2 Show

Trivia hint 3 Show

Click 'Show' for the Answer Show

What other teams have sent three defensive linemen to the Pro Bowl during the Super Bowl era? [click to continue…]

## Defensive Backs, Wide Receivers, Rule Early Rounds of 2014 Draft

In the first round of the 2014 draft, five cornerbacks were selected:

• the Browns traded up from 9 to 8 to ensure that Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert would be coming to Cleveland;
• at 14, the Bears drafted Virginia Tech corner Kyle Fuller;
• at 24 and 25, the Bengals and Chargers took Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) and Jason Verrett (TCU), respectively;
• the Broncos, perhaps still reeling from the Legion of Boom’s Super Bowl performance, took Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby with the 31st pick

In addition, four safeties were drafted in round 1:

That’s nine defensive backs in the first round.  At one point, we saw a string of 7 defensive backs taken in 14 picks at the back end of the round. This was the first time in NFL draft history that nine defensive backs went in the first 32 picks. So this is the new normal and the NFL is now a crazy passing league, right? [click to continue…]

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## Checkdowns: London Fletcher’s Last Stand (NYT)

A special bonus article this week at the New York Times, as I took a look at the incredible career of London Fletcher.

On Sunday, Fletcher, a Washington captain, will play in his 256th straight game, the third-longest streak in N.F.L. history for a player who was not a kicker, behind only Brett Favre’s 299 games and Jim Marshall’s 282.

Having somehow survived for 16 seasons without sustaining any kind of disabling injury, all while playing amid the chaos and attrition rates that are parts of an inside linebacker’s life, Fletcher has said he plans to call it quits after Sunday’s game while he is still ahead.

By the end of this week, though, he was hedging a bit, not quite sure he was truly ready to walk away.

Five weeks ago, Fletcher moved ahead of Eugene Robinson, a safety for 16 seasons, and became the career leader in games played by an undrafted defensive player. Earlier this season, he broke Derrick Brooks’s record of 208 consecutive starts at linebacker. On Sunday, Fletcher will start his 216th consecutive game. He has, in effect, dodged a million bullets in a game that is tough for any player to endure physically.

## Robert Mathis has more sacks than all other Colts combined

Mathis takes down Manning.

Good stat courtesy of Bill Barnwell this week: Robert Mathis has 11.5 sacks, while the rest of his Indianapolis teammates have just 10.5 sacks. Jerrell Freeman is second on the team with 3.5 sacks, Cory Redding has a pair of sacks, and no other Colt has more than one sack. That’s obviously very impressive: no other defensive player in 2013 has even 40% of his team’s sacks, with only LaMarr Woodley (5 sacks), Mario Williams (11), and Robert Quinn (10) having more than one-third of their team’s sacks.

Since the sack became an official statistic in 1982, the record for percentage of team sacks by an individual player was set by right outside linebacker Tim Harris on the 1989 Packers. Green Bay ran a 3-4 defense under Hank Bullough, and Harris had 19.5 of the team’s 34 sacks.  That means 57.4% of all sacks by Packers players that year came from Harris; no other Green Bay player had more than three sacks.

Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks, too, playing on the 2012 49ers. Last year, San Francisco recorded 38 team sacks, meaning Smith — playing that same ROLB position in the 3-4 defense — had 51.3% of his team’s sacks.  Two other players recorded exactly half of their team’s sacks.  In 1984, when Mark Gastineau (playing at left defensive end in New York’s 4-3 defense) set the sack record, he recorded 22 of the Jets 44 total sacks. Fifteen years later, Football Perspective All Underrated star Simeon Rice (who lined up at right defensive end) had 16.5 of the Cardinals 33 sacks.

Mathis was a star 4-3 defensive end, but he’s already matched his single-season career high in sacks. He’s having perhaps his best season playing as rush linebacker in the system devised by Greg Manusky and Chuck Pagano. And his numbers look even better as a percentage of team sacks. Below are the top 50 leaders from 1982 to 2012 in percentage of team sacks, which is a cut-off deep enough to bring in another Robert Mathis season:
[click to continue…]

## Inside Linebacker Moldbreakers: London Fletcher and Patrick Willis

Not doing a squirrel dance.

Last year, I wrote about how rare and impressive it was to see Ray Lewis and London Fletcher still playing at high levels. Lewis did not have a great 2012 season, but managed to walk away from the game as a defending Super Bowl champ. Fletcher was even better, and was named a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.

Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value system goes back to 1950. Only five times since then has an inside linebacker recorded 10 points of AV at age 36 or older: London Fletcher and Sam Mills are each responsible for two of them, with Bill Pellington (’64 Colts) rounding out the group.

Fletcher has never missed a game in his career, a remarkable accomplishment for the 15-year veteran. Consider that only three linebackers have appeared in more games than Fletcher (240): Bill Romanowski (243), Junior Seau (268), and Clay Matthews, Jr. (278). And all three of those players were outside linebackers, giving Fletcher more games than any inside linebacker in NFL history.

Which is pretty incredible for a player who received no awards or postseason recognition until turning 34. If all you knew about Fletcher was his performance from age 34+, you would assume he was a first ballot Hall of Famer. In 2009, he made his first Pro Bowl, and Fletcher was sent again in 2010 and 2011. The last two years, he’s been a second-team All-Pro, giving him some recognition in each of the last four years. Fletcher is on the short list (with Mills and Lewis) for the title of most successful inside linebacker from age 34+.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Patrick Willis, who has now made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons. The only other defensive players to do that: Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene, Dick Butkus, and Merlin Olsen. That’s mighty fine company, but it’s hard to find any flaws in Willis’ game. Not a fan of Pro Bowls? Since 1970, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Willis are the only defensive players with five first-team All-Pro honors in their first six seasons.
[click to continue…]

## Great Linebackers Playing Together II

One of the many great pairs of Bears linebackers.

Four years ago, I wrote version 1 of this article. With Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis retiring, I thought it would be fun to revisit the topic.

This post is NOT a look at the greatest linebacker groups ever. Instead, this post seeks to identify teams that had a bunch of great linebackers playing together while those players were in their primes.

The first thing we need to do is rate the linebackers. I used PFR’s Approximate Value system, which assigns a value to measure the approximate contribution of each player in each season since 1950. I then analyzed each player’s single-season AV score to come up with a base rating for each linebacker.1 It’s always difficult figuring out how to grade a player’s career, as you need to balance career length with peak production. I decided to average the best five years (they need not be consecutive) for every linebacker since 1950 to come up with a “peak AV rating” for each linebacker. Then I adjusted each linebacker’s peak AV rating for each season of his career depending solely on his age. That age adjusted score is the rating I’m giving each linebacker for each season of play, not his actual AV grade.2
[click to continue…]

1. One other note: I applied an AFL qualifier for players in the earlier days of the AFL. []
2. If you used the actual AV score, you would essentially be compiling a list of the best defenses of all time and little more. []

## Adjusting team sack rates in the NFL for SOS

I’ve got sacks on the mind today. A few hours ago, I looked at the single-season sack records by various players in both the 3-4 and 4-3. Today I also want to look at things from the team perspective. In 2012, which team is the best at getting to the quarterback? You might think that’s as simple as looking at a list of defensive statistics and sorting by sacks, but I’d like to take a more nuanced approach.

There are two factors that heavily impact a team’s sack rate: the opponents they face and the number of passing plays they defend. Using sack rate instead of sacks helps to solve the latter issue, but we still need an opponent adjustment even if we use sack rate. It’s a bit tricky doing it correctly, because you need to iterate the results just like you do with the SRS. What I mean by that is the sack rate of the Denver defense will need to be adjusted for the sack rate of the Kansas City, Oakland, and San Diego offenses (among other teams), and those will need to be adjusted for the Denver defense (and all the other defenses those teams faced).

Once you properly iterate the results, what are the results? The table below shows the top defenses this year at getting to the quarterback, although note that these numbers exclude the games from week 15. The table shows how many pass attempts each team has faced, the number of actual sacks they have recorded and their actual sack rate; the next column shows the SOS adjustment to the sack rate, with a positive number indicating a difficult strength of schedule (i.e., they’ve faced teams that are difficult to sack). The last two columns show the SOS-adjusted sack rates and total sacks.

1DEN506397.7%0.9%8.6%43.3
2CIN542437.9%0.5%8.4%45.7
3ARI426348%-0.5%7.4%31.7
4DAL429296.8%0.3%7.1%30.4
5CAR483306.2%0.9%7.1%34.2
6KAN389246.2%0.9%7.1%27.5
7STL489398%-1.2%6.8%33.1
8PHI467286%0.8%6.8%31.6
9HOU533376.9%-0.2%6.7%35.9
10MIA532377%-0.2%6.7%35.7
11GNB524356.7%-0.1%6.6%34.6
12BAL506305.9%0.6%6.6%33.3
13CLE531346.4%0.2%6.6%34.8
14NYG464316.7%-0.1%6.5%30.4
15SFO478326.7%-0.4%6.3%30.3
16PIT434266%0.3%6.3%27.4
17ATL463286%0.3%6.3%29.2
18BUF484316.4%-0.2%6.2%30.2
19CHI498336.6%-0.5%6.1%30.6
20SDG508254.9%1%5.9%30
21TEN481275.6%0.3%5.9%28.3
22SEA475326.7%-1.1%5.7%27
23NWE511285.5%-0.1%5.3%27.3
24NOR496255%0.2%5.3%26.1
25MIN515316%-0.8%5.2%27
26DET490306.1%-1.1%5%24.4
27WAS539234.3%0.7%4.9%26.6
28TAM541244.4%0.5%4.9%26.5
29NYJ446224.9%-0.1%4.8%21.5
30IND470245.1%-0.4%4.7%22.3
31OAK465173.7%0.7%4.3%20.1
32JAX464143%0%3%14

## J.J. Watt breaks sack record — for 3-4 defensive linemen

J.J. Swatt.

Houston’s J.J. Watt sacked Andrew Luck three times on Sunday, bringing his season sack total to 19.5. Entering 2012, Bruce Smith was the single-season record holder for sacks by a defensive lineman in a 3-4 scheme with 19 in 1990. The sack has only been an official statistic since 1982, but since the 3-4 only entered the NFL in the mid-’70s, we can be pretty sure that Watt is now the all-time record holder.

The tables below show the single-season leaders by various defensive players in 3-4 and 4-3 schemes from 1982 to 2011.

Let’s start with a look at the most sacks by a 3-4 defensive end:

YearTeamNamePosSacks
1990BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE19
1983SFOFred Dean3-4 DE17.5
1984PHIGreg Brown3-4 DE16
1983SEAJacob Green3-4 DE16
1992NORWayne Martin3-4 DE15.5
1986RAISean Jones3-4 DE15.5
1985NYGLeonard Marshall3-4 DE15.5
1993KANNeil Smith3-4 DE15
1986SDGLee Williams3-4 DE15
1986BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE15
1984KANArt Still3-4 DE14.5
1984SEAJeff Bryant3-4 DE14.5
1983GNBEzra Johnson3-4 DE14.5
1997BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE14
1993BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE14
1992BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE14
1989SDGLee Williams3-4 DE14
1984CLEReggie Camp3-4 DE14
1983PITKeith Willis3-4 DE14

As you can imagine, 3-4 defensive linemen don’t rack up many sacks. Bill Pickel, a nose tackle for the Raiders in the ’80s, recorded 12.5 sacks in both ’84 and ’85, making him the only 3-4 tackle to record more than 12 sacks in a season. Karl Mecklenburg, with 13 sacks for the Broncos in ’85, remains the only inside linebacker in a 3-4 with more than a dozen sacks.

Of course, 3-4 outside linebackers get all the glory in that scheme. San Francisco’s Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks so far in 2012 with two games remaining, but here were the leaders prior to 2012:

YearTeamNamePosSacks
1986NYGLawrence Taylor3-4 OLB20.5
2008DALDeMarcus Ware3-4 OLB20
1990KANDerrick Thomas3-4 OLB20
2011DALDeMarcus Ware3-4 OLB19.5
1989GNBTim Harris3-4 OLB19.5
1984NWEAndre Tippett3-4 OLB18.5
2008MIAJoey Porter3-4 OLB17.5
1995BUFBryce Paup3-4 OLB17.5
2009DENElvis Dumervil3-4 OLB17
2006SDGShawne Merriman3-4 OLB17
1992SFOTim Harris3-4 OLB17
1991NORPat Swilling3-4 OLB17
1989NORPat Swilling3-4 OLB16.5
1989RAMKevin Greene3-4 OLB16.5
1988RAMKevin Greene3-4 OLB16.5
1985NWEAndre Tippett3-4 OLB16.5
2008PITJames Harrison3-4 OLB16
1992DENSimon Fletcher3-4 OLB16
1990SFOCharles Haley3-4 OLB16
2010DALDeMarcus Ware3-4 OLB15.5
1988NYGLawrence Taylor3-4 OLB15.5
1998CARKevin Greene3-4 OLB15
1989NYGLawrence Taylor3-4 OLB15
1984PITMike Merriweather3-4 OLB15

YearTeamNamePosSacks
2001NYGMichael Strahan4-3 DE22.5
2011MINJared Allen4-3 DE22
1984NYJMark Gastineau4-3 DE22
1989MINChris Doleman4-3 DE21
1987PHIReggie White4-3 DE21
1992PHIClyde Simmons4-3 DE19
1983NYJMark Gastineau4-3 DE19
2003NYGMichael Strahan4-3 DE18.5
2002MIAJason Taylor4-3 DE18.5
1986WASDexter Manley4-3 DE18.5
2011PHIJason Babin4-3 DE18
1988PHIReggie White4-3 DE18
1984CHIRichard Dent4-3 DE17.5
1999STLKevin Carter4-3 DE17
1992SDGLeslie O'Neal4-3 DE17
1985CHIRichard Dent4-3 DE17
2011NYGJason Pierre-Paul4-3 DE16.5
2008ATLJohn Abraham4-3 DE16.5
2000MIATrace Armstrong4-3 DE16.5
1999ARISimeon Rice4-3 DE16.5
1998SEAMichael Sinclair4-3 DE16.5
2005OAKDerrick Burgess4-3 DE16
2004INDDwight Freeney4-3 DE16
1998GNBReggie White4-3 DE16
1983STLCurtis Greer4-3 DE16

And 4-3 defensive tackles:

YearTeamNamePosSacks
1989MINKeith Millard4-3 DT18
1986PHIReggie White4-3 DT18
2000NORLa'Roi Glover4-3 DT17
2000TAMWarren Sapp4-3 DT16.5
1997MINJohn Randle4-3 DT15.5
1997SFODana Stubblefield4-3 DT15
1992SEACortez Kennedy4-3 DT14

4-3 outside linebackers rarely rack up huge sack numbers. In fact, Denver’s Von Miller, who has 16 sacks this year, is already the record holder in the official sack era. Derrick Thomas (14.5 sacks in 1992, 13 in 1996) in Kansas City, Washington’s Ken Harvey (13.5 in ’94) and Cleveland’s Jamir Miller (13 in ’01) are the only other 4-3 outside linebackers with more than twelve sacks in a season since 1982. (Of course, Thomas also had a 20-sack season a 3-4 outside linebacker.) Charlie Clemons, with 13.5 sacks in 2001, is the record holder among 4-3 middle linebackers.

## NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 14

This week at the New York Times, I take a look at how three defensive stars from the 2011 Draft have dominated the league and helped make their teams Super Bowl contenders.

The 2011 N.F.L. draft class was initially talked up for its star potential at quarterback: Cam Newton (the first overall pick), Jake Locker (8), Blaine Gabbert (10), Christian Ponder (12), Andy Dalton (35) and Colin Kaepernick (36).

Twenty months later, the  most dominant players have been guys named Smith, Miller and Watt. Those three are the front-runners for the defensive player of the year award:

Aldon Smith San Francisco took Smith, a Missouri linebacker, with the seventh pick in the 2011 draft. As a rookie, he was a role player who participated in fewer than half of his team’s snaps but recorded 14 sacks as the team’s designated pass rusher. This year, Smith is a full-time player and continues to be a dominant force. After sacking Miami’s Ryan Tannehill twice on Sunday, he has 19.5 sacks, the most of any player through 13 team games since the sack became an official statistic.

Smith has recorded more sacks in his first two seasons than Reggie White, Derrick Thomas or anyone else who has entered the league since 1982, the year the N.F.L. began officially tracking the statistic. Against the Bears on “Monday Night Football,” Smith recorded five and a half sacks against Jason Campbell, the most by a player in a game since 2007. He is within reach of Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5, set in 2001. But as good as Smith has been, he is arguably just the third-best defensive player from his draft class.

Von Miller The Denver Broncos selected Texas A&M’s Miller with the second overall pick. He had an eye-opening rookie season that was somewhat overshadowed by Tebow Time, but he helped transform the Bronco defense and rightfully earned defensive rookie of the year honors. In 2011, Pro Football Focus rated Miller as the second-best defensive player in the league, and ranked him as the top linebacker against the run and the best pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebacker.

He has only gotten better in 2012. Miller has recorded a sack in each of the team’s last six games, all wins, and now has 16. More impressively, according to Pro Football Focus, Miller’s 16 sacks and 45 quarterback hurries are more than triple the numbers produced by the second-best 4-3 outside linebacker. He ranks as the best pass-rushing linebacker and the best run-stopping linebacker in the N.F.L., and neither race is particularly close. Miller is arguably the best all-around linebacker in the league and perhaps one of the three or four best pass rushers in the N.F.L., too. But Miller still isn’t the most highly regarded member of the 2011 draft.

J.J. Watt The presumptive favorite for the defensive player of the year award remains Houston’s Watt. With an 11-2 record, the Texans are tied for the best record in the N.F.L., and Watt, drafted out of Wisconsin at No. 11,  is a huge reason for that. According to Football Outsiders, entering Week 14, Watt led the league with 41 “Defeats” (a turnover, a tackle for loss or a play that prevents a third- or fourth-down conversion); the next-closest player was Miller with 33. According to an e-mail conversation Monday with Aaron Schatz  of Football Outsiders, who has been tracking the metric since 1996, only linebackers Ray Lewis (45) and Derrick Brooks (42) have recorded more “Defeats” in a full season, both doing so in 1999.

Watt’s production is remarkable for any player, let alone a 3-4 defensive end. Generally, defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme are not expected to fill up a stat sheet; they are supposed to absorb blockers to enable the linebackers behind them to achieve the glory. But Watt has recorded 16.5 sacks this season and became the first player to officially record 15 sacks and 15 passes defended in the same season. Pro Football Focus ranked Watt just ahead of Miller, and says he’s more than twice as valuable as the next best 3-4 defensive end in football, the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson.

Looking for a darkhorse? To identify the  man who probably should win the underrated player of the year award — watch a Bengals game. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins was taken in the same draft as Ndamukong Suh but has delivered  more production with a fraction of the hype. Atkins was at it again on Sunday against the Cowboys, delivering a sack and two other tackles behind the line of scrimmage, to go with two additional hits and six hurries against Tony Romo.

You can read the full article here, which notes that Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson are both chasing the 2,000-yard mark and highlights one really, really sad bit of Lions trivia.

## Schiano leading Bucs rush defense from worst to first

Under Raheem Morris, the Tampa Bay rush defense was always… what is the polite way to put this… accommodating to opposing running backs. Over Morris’ three-year tenure, the Buccaneers joined the Bills as either 31st or 32nd in all three major rush defense categories: rushing yards allowed, rushing yards per carry allowed, and rushing touchdowns allowed.

This was the case despite the organization’s best efforts to find players that could stop the run. The Buccaneers’ second selection in the 2009 draft was used on defensive tackle Roy Miller.  That season, Tampa Bay finished last in both rushing yards and rushing yards per carry allowed.   The following April, the Bucs used the third pick in the draft on Gerald McCoy and the 35th selection on Brian Price, making them the rare team to take multiple interior defensive linemen with top-40 picks.  That season was the one successful year of Morris’ tenure, but Tampa Bay still finished 28th in rushing yards allowed and 31st in yards per rush allowed.

Linebacker Lavonte David has been a monster for Tampa Bay.

So Tampa continued to focus on the defensive line in the 2011 draft, this time taking Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn and Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers with their first and second round picks and middle linebacker Mason Foster in the third round. In 2011, Tampa finished the year 32nd in rushing yards allowed, 32nd in rushing touchdowns allowed, and 31st in yards per carry allowed.

Enter Greg Schiano and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan.  With a horrible run defense for three consecutive years, the Bucs couldn’t ignore the problem just because they had failed in prior attempts to plug the leak.  With the seventh pick, the team selected Alabama’s Mark Barron, an in-the-box safety who was considered one of the safest picks in the draft.

Schiano, Barron, McCoy, and second round pick Lavonte David (who was just named the NFC defensive rookie of the month for November) have completely reformed the Tampa rush defense. The team currently ranks first in both rushing yards and yards per rush allowed. That’s unbelievable. Nothing more could be said about the magnitude of a leap from 32nd to 1st, so let me close with a look at the biggest jumps in rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per carry allowed in NFL history.
[click to continue…]

## Checkdowns: Antonio Cromartie’s improved play since the Darrelle Revis injury

An interesting story today on Antonio Cromartie, courtesy of Bob Glauber of Newsday. Cromartie says that after Revis was injured, the All-Pro cornerback told Cromartie that he needed to start taking his job more seriously and that it was time for him to reach his potential. Cromartie stated: “Hearing it from your peers, you take more out of that than hearing it from your coach…. Your peers expect so much out of you and expect you to play at a higher level, especially when he’s one of the best corners in the league.”

I’ve been very impressed with Cromartie this season, and Pro Football Focus’ numbers back in up. PFF’s subscriber content ranks Cromartie fourth in pass coverage among cornerbacks this season, behind only Charles Tillman, Casey Hayward, and Richard Sherman. He’s playing as well as I’ve seen him since he’s been a Jet, and he’s changed his demeanor off the field, too.

Your reaction to Cromartie’s comments is essentially a Rorschach test of your views on life. Whether you find it disappointing that this is what it took for the light to go on (and who knows when the bulb will need to be replaced) or inspiring that he was able to elevate his play is left to the reader.

Cromartie realized he had to take on more of a leadership role, and admitted that his level of play leading up to this season wasn’t as proficient as it should have been. It was a startling admission from a player who rarely suffers from a lack of self assurance, yet it was a moment that signaled a major turnaround. Cromartie is indeed playing his best football, and now laments that he didn’t take his craft more seriously before.

“It shouldn’t have taken for Revis to go down for me to be playing at a very high level,” he said. “There’s something I think I took for granted having Revis on the other side and not being able to play at a high level when he was here.”

“I think the biggest thing that’s changed for me is the leadership role,” Cromartie said. “Just making sure everyone was on top of everything, helping guys study film and knowing how to study film. I think I just took on a role that once [Revis] left, and I wanted to make sure I played at a higher level every single week.”

## Ray Lewis and London Fletcher: incredible outliers or a signal of something more?

The fountain of youth consists of two parts levitation and one part Matt Schaub

In a year where offensive fireworks dominated the headlines, here’s a piece of trivia on the other side of the ball: 36-year-old London Fletcher led the league in tackles. Fletcher, like Ray Lewis, is past the point where he can be referred to by his name alone. Instead, both get the honorific “ageless” before their names. The ageless Ray Lewis made his thirteenth Pro Bowl last season, putting him one behind Merlin Olsen and Bruce Matthews for the record. While it’s tempting to say Lewis is making Pro Bowl berths based on reputation now, I don’t think it’s his play is undeserving of such recognitiion. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis was the 5th best inside linebacker last season. As for London Fletcher, he also registered in the top ten according to PFF. And while Fletcher was never as dominant as Lewis, ‘ageless’ simply has replaced ‘criminally underrated’ for Fletcher, a moniker that preceded his name most of the time for the last decade.

I think most of us know that it’s pretty incredible that these two are 37-years-old and still playing at high levels (well, at least we expect them to in 2012). But do we really recognize how truly rare this is? There are eleven modern era inside linebackers currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The table below lists them chronologically based on the year they entered the league. The columns show the “Approximate Value” or “AV” score (as defined by Pro-Football-Reference) assigned to each linebacker for each season during his thirties.

Linebacker3031323334353637
Mike Singletary181213159000
Harry Carson71013149600
Jack Lambert1717200000
Willie Lanier95500000
Dick Butkus156000000
Nick Buoniconti91116149010
Ray Nitschke16151097220
Sam Huff118860600
Les Richter119200000
Joe Schmidt172190000
Bill George171415919609
Average13
10875201