Our three-year spin around the NFL through the lens of PFF’s unique statistics continues today with a look at tackling efficiency. We’re going to run through the entire defense over the next few days but we’ll be starting in the middle with the true tackling machines of the NFL–the linebackers.
For the purposes of this look we have combined inside linebackers in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, as well as 4-3 outside linebackers. The 3-4 outside linebackers will be looked at separately when we analyze the performance of edge-rushers.
As a reminder, Tackling Efficiency is as straight forward a formula as it gets, and is simply the ratio of missed tackles to tackle attempts: Solo Tackles + Assists + Misses / Missed Tackles = TE.
In order to qualify for the study we set a minimum threshold of 1,200 snaps. That eliminated all rookies, and required a player to put in a little over a full-season of defensive snaps in order to be featured.
Tackles are actually not an official statistic, though the NFL is happy to treat them as if they were–they are compiled by different officials and are often wildly inaccurate because NFL scorers have to get it right live, not after the fact with the benefit of replay and hindsight. We at PFF keep our own, more accurate, tackle statistics, and over the past three seasons no linebacker has recorded more than London Fletcher. The Washington Redskin is known as a tackling machine and though we differ with the league on the numbers, in this area we agree with the NFL’s ranking.
According to us, Fletcher is tied with the Detroit Lions’ Stephen Tulloch with 308 solo tackles over the past three years, although Fletcher has 81 assists compared to Tulloch’s 66. New Saint Curtis Lofton and Chad Greenway from the Vikings are the only other linebackers with over 300 solo tackles in that span.
Seven players have notched more than 30 missed tackles over the past three seasons and, predictably enough, three of them were in the group with 300+ solo tackles. Lofton (32), Fletcher (32) and Greenway (36) are joined by David Hawthorne (32), DeAndre Levy (37), Geno Hayes (38) and Lance Briggs (38) as the most prolific missed-tackle artists in the study, and all of those players ranked well outside the Top 10 in terms of efficiency.
The interesting thing about that group is that it encompasses both players who have played extremely well in the past few years and some who have played very poorly, demonstrating that missed tackles may be a contributing factor to a grade, but they will never torpedo a player’s rating on their own. Hawthorne and Greenway in particular have had seasons where they graded out among the elite at their position.
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Tackling Efficiency – The Good and The Bad
Anybody that has been reading our Tackle Efficiency pieces over the past few seasons won’t be surprised to see the player that leads the way at the top, and some way out in front of anybody else: Takeo Spikes. In 285 total tackle attempts Spikes has missed just nine in the past three seasons, and four of those came this season in San Diego when he was carrying an injury. That is by far the best ratio of any qualifying player and comfortably distances his former teammate, Patrick Willis in second place. Willis has missed 14 tackles in the same period, althoguh he has also attempted more than Spikes and has played over 500 more snaps.
Paul Posluszny is an extremely underrated player and he makes the sharp end of this list, tying with Bradie James for third position with matching ratings of one miss every 23.5 attempts. Michael Boley, James Laurinaitis and Jerod Mayo are other big names who cracked the top 10.
At the ugly end of the spectrum, Sean Weatherspoon posts the worst ratio among linebackers, missing a tackle for every 7.1 he attempted. The good news for Weatherspoon is that 15 of those misses came last season when he still earned a +16.2 grade against the run and a +18.3 overall mark, proving that he can be an excellent player despite the misses. If he can clean up those missed tackles going forward he could be something truly special. Following hot on his heels in the list are Hayes and Levy, both of whom have racked up misses and whose ratios are only marginally behind that of Weatherspoon’s.
Hayes’ teammate in Tampa, Quincy Black also notched his fair share of missed tackles, as the entire Buccaneers defense seemed to be engaged in a competition last season to see who could miss the most. Perennial letdown Ernie Sims also makes the bottom 10, adding to the reasons why he has never been able to translate his enviable athleticism into excellent play at the NFL level.