Bart Scott: The Art of Linebacking, Beyond the Tackle

| June 13, 2011

Most of these articles are easy to write. We’re either telling you a guy was much better than the general perception, or much worse than the general perception, but in either case, it’s pretty obvious the guy is either under or overrated. This one isn’t so straightforward.
 
Bart Scott seems to divide people. He’s either seen as a forceful leader and a vital part of the defense, or as an underperforming disappointment, especially given his propensity to sound-off when he likes to (Can’t Wait!). How can a player split opinions so dramatically? Surely the numbers answer things one way or the other?
 
Well, herein lies the problem …
 
Everybody likes to distill football down into some easy to understand statistics: yards gained, touchdowns scored, tackles made, interceptions … but it’s not always that simple. Football at its basic level is blocking and tackling, and little else, but only half of that equation comes with a ready made statistic (and even that isn’t official): tackling.
 
There are 11 guys playing defense on any given play, and most of the time only one of them is making the tackle, but that doesn’t mean that the other ten were just riding shotgun. In fact, oftentimes players other than the tackler may have had a far bigger, more destructive impact on that play, but there’s no stat in place to track it and you may not even notice it when watching the play. You’ll see the runner cut inside, try to reverse field, and eventually get taken down, but you might not catch why he had to do that – because his lead blocker was just blown up by a defender and the entire play was dead in the water before it really got going.
 
Bart Scott is the master of those plays. His job is often not to tackle the ball-carrier. Instead, he is to attack the lead block, blow it up, and re-route the runner so that another player can make the tackle and add a mark to the stat-sheet. There isn’t a player in the league that attacks a lead block like Bart Scott. What sets him apart, though, is that his impact isn’t limited to just fullbacks and tight ends, as Scott will punish linemen as well, a job all too many linebackers either shirk, or simply can’t do. Let’s look at an example of this from last season:
 

Week 9 @ Detroit. 2nd and 10 in the 1st Q

After taking a deep shot on 1st down that was exceptionally defended by Darrelle Revis, the Lions go back to the ground to try and make 3rd down more manageable.  Bart Scott had different ideas.
 
Detroit lines up with twin receivers right, and a tight end on the line at either side of the formation. The Jets counter this with their base D, with linebackers shifted over to create a de-facto 5-2 formation, with Bryan Thomas in a two-point stance at the end of the line. Detroit’s blocking scheme picks everybody up, and LG Rob Sims pulls right to lead the runner through the hole outside of RT. If this block is successful there is serious room to run for Jahvid Best. The linemen are blocked well, David Harris finds himself engaging the Lions’ center, Raiola, and likely only Antonio Cromartie is standing between Best and a huge gain.
 
The block was not successful, however. Scott recognizes the hole immediately at the snap and meets the pulling guard at the line of scrimmage. He attacks his inside shoulder, stands him up, drives him backwards, and makes the tackle for no gain on the play. Scott meets a guard in the hole that had build up a head of steam and not only stood his ground, but ran through him and killed the play.
 

Week 11 vs. Houston. 1st and 10 in the 2nd Q

Houston come out in an I-Formation, twins left, strong right. The Jets counter with the same four-man line and shifted linebacker corps as in the play against Detroit.
 
As with the play before, the run hinges on a lead-block through the hole, but this time it’s fullback Vonta Leach who meets Scott. Scott makes contact one yard deep in the backfield, stands the big fullback up, forces the runner to run right into the back of him, and then combines with Jason Taylor – disengaging from his block on the edge – to make the tackle for no gain.
 
Again the offense had blocked this run well, opening up the right hole and picking everybody up, but Scott dominated his man to the point where the entire run was over before it went anywhere.
 
This is vintage Bart Scott, it’s what he does best. Most linebackers will fill their assigned hole, take on a lead block, and look to shed the blocker to make the tackle as the runner comes past. Scott does it differently. He doesn’t just fill the hole and take on the blocker, he attacks the hole and looks to go through the blocker, then deal with the running back on their side of the line. But obviously not all of his plays are like this, he isn’t Superman. There are plenty of plays though where he is equally forceful against the blocker, but doesn’t have the opportunity to make the tackle and another Jet defender reaps the reward of Scott’s play.
 

The Folly of Tackles

I don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion about who is better, Bart Scott or David Harris, but it would be foolish to argue the case for either player based purely on the number of tackles each make, as their roles in the Jets’ defense are dramatically different: Harris playing the Mike, and Scott the Jack linebacker roles in the Rex Ryan defense. Harris may make more tackles than Scott does, but how many of them does he owe to the play of his teammate against lead blockers?
 
That point needs to be made more often, regarding linebackers especially. You can’t rely on the number of tackles a guy makes to make a case for his performance, if for no other reason than tackle figures are both unofficial and chronically inaccurate. Each team has their own scorer, and they vary in accuracy, but in the time we’ve been analyzing games we’ve seen tackles attributed to guys not only nowhere near the ball-carrier, but guys not even on the field at the time!
 
There are multiple scorers whose default position seems to be “when in doubt, credit the MLB”, or “If he’s near the pile, give him the assist”.  Not only is it inherently inaccurate – being done live during the games from the stadium – but the different attitudes towards crediting tackles results in a statistic that makes it very difficult to compare players across teams. That’s why our tackle figures often vary significantly from the NFL ones you’ll see – we get to check the tackler retrospectively, watch numerous times in detail, and have a uniform policy of crediting the tackle across all teams.
 

Making Them Count

The next point about tackles is where they are made. Not all tackles are created equal, some are more equal than others (sorry). If a linebacker makes 18 tackles in a game but every one of them came after a first down by the offense because that linebacker took a mis-step, is it really a great performance? We take account of that in the advanced numbers we produce at PFF, recording defensive stops along with raw tackle figures. What constitutes a defensive stop varies by down and distance, but on 3rd and 4th down it obviously needs to be shy of the first down markers, etc.
 
Though Scott ranks shy of Harris purely in terms of tackles, he actually makes a greater proportion of his tackles closer to the line of scrimmage, often notching a defensive stop as well as a tackle on the play. Last season, 60% of Harris’ solo tackles were defensive stops, whereas Bart Scott made 62% of his count in that regard. This might sound a fairly abstract concept, but the bottom line is the closer to the line of scrimmage tackles are being made (or even behind it ideally), the more likely the offense stalls and has to punt the ball away.
 
Interestingly, while both of those marks were good, neither was amongst the league elite when looking at the rest of the inside linebackers (Though Scott often plays as an outside linebacker in the Jets’ hybrid scheme, he does so usually playing over the offensive guard – ie in the same spot as the inside linebackers in a regular 3-4 alignment, hence our classification).
 
Given the similar proportion of stops both players recorded in 2010, how do we explain Scott being our top graded ILB against the run in 2010? Our 3rd rated ILB overall, he leapfrogs Patrick Willis and Lawrence Timmons to the top of the pile when looking just at performance in the run game. Scott’s grade of +27.5 is some distance clear of the next best mark, the +20.1 that Timmons scored. Harris, despite a decent season by his standards, was 24th against the run, scoring +6.8 in that regard. It’s not necessarily the reckless abandon with which Scott takes on blockers, but the fact that he is regularly taking on – and beating – blockers at or around the line of scrimmage, something many linebackers can’t do. That’s something that won’t show up in stats, even advanced ones.
 

Disappearing in the Playoffs – Say What?

One strange criticism we heard of Scott from several reputable sources was that he went AWOL in the playoffs this season, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The explanation for this can be found in the things we’ve just been talking about above. In the three playoff games, Scott tallied just nine tackles, but he graded +7.1 against the run and +8.2 overall for those games. So where is the positive coming from? Well, ignoring plays in coverage, Scott recorded five key plays against blockers, seven positive plays, two neutral plays and only four marginal plays (plays where the blocker marginally got the better of Scott). He had zero strongly negative plays against blockers across the three games.
 
The point, of course, is that Scott does the work you don’t notice on the surface of games. He might not be making the tackles and showing up on the highlight reel, but that doesn’t mean he was anonymous in the game. Anyone suggesting he disappeared in the playoffs simply needs to take a closer look at what he did during those games, and ask the blockers that had to deal with him whether they felt he was a non-factor.
 
Statistics can help make things easier to understand, and help make an argument seem more convincing, but football remains blocking and tackling, not simply tackling. Don’t ignore a linebacker of Bart Scott’s caliber just because he’s not racking up eye-popping tackle numbers, because believe us, he’s destroying blockers on a regular basis.
 
 
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