Tackling Safeties

| 2 years ago

Tackling Safeties

You know the drill, the clue is in the position name – a safety has to be a safety net for the defense, a barrier that saves disaster when the rest of the defense hasn’t. They’re the last line of defense and often the only players between a run of the mill snap from the offense, and a game-breaking touchdown.

But how many of the league’s safeties would you trust to make that game-saving tackle in the open field? Let’s take a look what 2010’s numbers say.
The first thing to note is that this list is heavily populated by players that were far from full-time starters all season. Between some teams’ penchant for rotating safeties, the punitive benching of some when they’ve allowed the play get behind them once too often, and injuries over the year, there are a lot of players that owe a good spot in the table to a small sample size. We’re not saying they wouldn’t have maintained that level over the season (though realistically many wouldn’t have), but it’s something to bear in mind as you look it over.

The Perfect Three

Of all the safeties that had at least fifteen tackle attempts, three were able to avoid missing a single tackle. None of the three, predictably enough, were full time starters, and Kurt Coleman’s 24 tackles and one assist led the trio. We’re not dealing with massive numbers here, but noteworthy nonetheless. The other two members of that elite group were the Rams’ James Butler and Chicago’s rookie, Major Wright.
Sticking with the elite figures, there was a further gaggle of players to miss just a single tackle on the year. Only one of those players was a full-time starter, putting him way out in front of the pack in terms of ratio of missed tackles to attempts; Denver’s Renaldo Hill. Hill missed just a single tackle in 68 attempts on the year.
While Buffalo’s Donte Whitner has never been amongst the elite safeties we’ve graded (in fact he’s at the other end of the scale with far more regularity), the five missed tackles he notched this season was good enough for a ratio of just one miss in 27.20 attempts, 7th best in the league, and bettered by just Hill in terms of full-time starters. In fact, Whitner was comfortably the most prolific safety in the study in terms of tackle attempts, and his ratio becomes all the more impressive when you consider that he stuck his head in there more times than any other safety, and more than four times as often as all but one of the players ahead of him on the list.
Whitner is closely followed by his Buffalo teammate Jairus Byrd, who heads a trio of starting safeties that also includes Chicago’s Danieal Manning and the Broncos’ Brian Dawkins, all of whom finished with over 22 attempts per miss.

The Not-so-perfect end

But that’s enough of those with impressive performances, we know everyone is far more interested in those with the heavy miss ratios.
The Lions might be making the foundation of an extremely impressive roster, and defense in particular, but there’s no getting around the fact that they are in some desperate need of upgrades across the secondary. C.C. Brown ‘earned’ himself the nickname of “Can’t Cover Brown” for his play in coverage over the years, but his play last season would have seen “Can’t Tackle Brown” equally fitting but for the initials. Brown missed an eye-opening ten tackles, and given his relatively low number of attempts, that left him with the worst ratio of all qualifying safeties – one in 4.5 attempts on the season. About the only consolation for Brown is that there were other players that missed more tackles in total, albeit with more bites at the cherry.
No other safety got close to the 17 tackles missed by Pro-Bowler Michael Griffin. The Titans’ safety did rack up his share of tackles, but even so, he missed one in every seven attempts and thoroughly tested the team’s faith in the “safety” aspect of his play. This was not a vintage year for Griffin despite somehow – inexplicably – being voted to the Pro-Bowl. He is clearly capable of big performances and quality play, but you can’t survive long in this league missing tackles at that rate or with the sheer number of misses he had last season – those cause too may big plays.

A New Year

2009’s undisputed tackling king, Yeremiah Bell from the Dolphins, didn’t get close to retaining his crown in 2010, missing 11 tackles on the season. With the way the Fins play him, he still made more than his share of stops, and it was only that which saved his ratio from the nasty end, finishing with one miss in 10 attempts over the season.
On the other hand, some players saw a marked improvement in form from ’09 to 2010. Michael Huff’s grade shot up with the Raiders finally playing to his strengths, not forcing him into a role that didn’t suit him. Playing much more as the deep safety last season, Huff was able to use his range to far greater effect and looked like a different player. What’s interesting is that playing in space like that improved his missed tackle rate too. Missing one in 8.6 attempts in 2009, Huff was able to stretch that to one in 16.2 this season, despite a larger number of tackling attempts.

Top 20 Safeties, Tackle Attempts per Missed Tackle

PlayerTeamQB SkTksAssMTAtt/MT
Kurt ColemanPHI02410N/A
James ButlerSL01820N/A
Major WrightCHI01800N/A
Renaldo HillDEN0589168.00
Taylor MaysSF0243128.00
Nathan JonesDEN0261128.00
Donte WhitnerBUF110723527.20
Jairus ByrdBUF15917326.67
Danieal ManningCHI0648325.00
Brian DawkinsDEN2566322.33
Mike AdamsCLV0192122.00
Antoine BetheaIND18316521.00
Dawan LandryBLT18310616.67
O.J. AtogweSL3649516.20
Michael HuffOAK4657516.20
Ryan MundyPIT0150116.00
Tom ZbikowskiBLT0150116.00
Tyvon BranchOAK4787615.83
Reggie NelsonCIN0359315.67
Kenny PhillipsNYG06111515.40


Bottom 20 Safeties, Tackle Attempts per Missed Tackle

PlayerTeamQB SkTksAssMTAtt/MT
C.C. BrownDET0323104.50
Reggie SmithSF029494.67
Kendrick LewisKC026484.75
Bryan ScottBUF319574.86
Kareem MooreWAS04211135.08
Sean ConsidineJAX1346105.10
Jon McGrawKC030585.38
Aaron FranciscoIND04012106.20
Steve GregorySD035886.38
Sean JonesTB15416136.46
Paul OliverSD04213106.50
Deon GrantNYG1486106.50
Chris D. ClemonsMIA2478106.70
Earl ThomasSEA0618126.75
Sherrod MartinCAR05619136.77
Craig DahlSL1764146.79
Malcolm JenkinsNO142486.88
James SandersNE0371696.89
Michael GriffinTEN08715177.00
Thomas DeCoudATL06212127.17


| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • james carbone

    Great article Sam. Although it was a small sample size for Kurt Coleman, I did like what I saw from him throughout the year when he got a chance to get out on the field. I’m excited to watch the positional battle between Coleman and Jarrett, whenever that actually happens.

  • John Breitenbach

    Coleman’s tackling was by far the most impressive aspect of his game last year. He made some critical open field tackles of AP in the Minnesota game, only making one play when he lost contain on the edge on a run play. I would probably expect him to start next year with the likely shortened TC.

  • hounddog

    I’de like to see where they all graded out.

  • snowman88

    Are u guys going to do LB and DL analysis as well???