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AFC North Roundup Finale: Linebackers

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Analyzing the linebackers of the AFC North and their performance over the 2012 season.

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In my previous article about the defensive line, I decided my pre-season assessments last summer were unduly pessimistic. But is this true? Let's look at the linebackers to see if further enlightenment may be found. A few of the same charts will appear, because some of the metrics are rather intertwined. We will also look more closely at the individual players. But to begin we'll look at some figures for the whole defensive front.

First, Advanced NFL Stats:


The first two charts were in the previous article, and I've expanded to include passing defense. ("WPA" means "Win Probability Added"—in the case of the defense, this is how much they reduced the likelihood of a successful play from the opposing offense.) Interestingly to me, only Cincinnati was better at pass defense than run defense, at least according to the Advanced NFL Stats guys. These are rankings, hence the chart parameters are 1 and 32, and hence lower is better.

Here the overall defensive figures from Pro Football Focus:


Interestingly, the PFF guys show the Bengals as worse in pass coverage, and the Browns as better.

Football Outsiders has a separate ranking for the defensive line, given in the previous post. They don't otherwise separate out defensive play, exactly, but they do have a way of separating line play from that of the linebackers and secondary, so let's look at that:


As the FO guys explain, you can look at the balance between the Defensive Line ranking, which is based upon the average number of yards given up by the defense, and the Open Field ranking, which is how quickly a runner is taken down if they get through the defensive line, to make a determination as to whether the fault generally lies with a weaker defensive line or a weak linebacking corps and secondary. They note that, generally speaking, a poorer ranking in Adjusted Yards (the left hand chart) and a better one in Open Field is characteristic of a 3-4 alignment.

So this means it should come as no surprise that the Steelers, who play a classic 3-4, rank far better in Open Field yards given up than in total yards. And although the Ravens are messing about with 4-3 configurations, it would appear their strength is still in 3-4 mode. It certainly doesn't explain why both the Browns and Cincinnati ranked much higher in Open Field yards given up. But then there is the issue of sacks:


Curiously, although the Steelers' defensive line was definitely below average in pass protection, the sack rate was, to my shock, quite respectable. It was no surprise to see the Bengals at the top—they were only bested in this metric by the Denver Broncos, league-wide. But given Pittsburgh's average of less than two sacks per game, I was quite surprised to see them rank as high as No. 11, especially as they are completely dismal in this stat, according to Pro Football Focus. So what's the difference?

I wouldn't know for sure. But here is how FO calculates the rate: It is sacks and intentional grounding penalties, adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. The only AFC North team, according to PFF, who appeared in the top half of the league was the Bengals. (The Bengals were No. 4, the Ravens No. 25, the Browns No. 26, and the Steelers No. 32.) Maybe this isn't such a bad thing—the top three teams in this stats were the Philadelphia Eagles, the Buffalo Bills, and the Tennessee Titans. All that pass rush awesomeness didn't seem to get them very far.

Well, here comes the "looking at the individual players" part:

Defensive Tackle:


You may be wondering why I'm bothering with the snap count. First, in looking at the snap count you can get an idea of who got the most playing time. But there's another reason. Pro Football Reference assigns each player, each year, something they call "Approximate Value." And a reasonable amount of this value is predicated on how much a player actually played. Because, as we all know as we've watched Troy Polamalu sit on the sidelines for way too much of the time during the past couple of seasons, it doesn't matter how good someone is if they can't get on the field. The question comes when they are available, appear to be outplaying the person in front of them, and yet they are riding the pine much of the time. Let's look at the PFR table and see if anything jumps out:


The Approximate Value metric is not a particularly sensitive one. As you can see, the highest number for any of the DTs this past season was an 18 for Geno Atkins. Atkins was the top DT in the league by almost everyone's metrics, a rare instance of such agreement, and the AV numbers go down from there. But there is still a good bit we can glean. For instance, you will note that the general curve of each chart is similar, because playing a lot of snaps increases your value.

Of course, it's possible to look at it the other way—if you're good at what you do, you get a lot of snaps. This is only true to a rather limited extent, though, as there are many reasons for a coach to send a player onto the field besides his conviction that he's sending out the best player in absolute terms.

Go back and look at the first two Bengals, though. You can see that Peko and Atkins were much closer in snap count than they were in AV. You can also see that the two Browns with the highest snap counts were deemed to have a value more in line with that of Peko than that of Atkins.

Here's how the Advanced NFL Stats people feel:


Geno Atkins was ranked No. 1. The next best ranking in the AFC North was Ahtyba Rubin, at No. 9. You can see there's a pretty steep drop-off, and then players get closer and closer. The lowest-ranked player in this group was Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, at No. 115.

Here's the Pro Football Focus Overall Rating (higher is better):


This chart doesn't do justice at all to how much better PFF thinks Geno Atkins is than anyone else. His actual rating was an 80.0, but if I made 80 the top number you really can't even see the differences between the other players. And while there may be those who think the differences between the rest of the DTs in the AFC North are insignificant, I don't. (To show you how amazing Atkins' rating is, the next highest rating went to Gerald McCoy of Tampa Bay, who received a 31.2.)

Since PFF ranks as if each play is a unique event, than contrary to the PFR AV, the number of snaps a player plays isn't really significant. Other than Atkins, they aren't all that enamored of the AFC North players. The only positive rankings other than Atkins are Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor of the Browns and Steve McLendon of the Steelers. (Any rating between a +1 and a -1 is considered average—in other words, the players are doing their job competently and nothing more.)

Before we head to the DEs, I want to address the "controversy" at NT in Pittsburgh. Steeler Nation was in a bit of a tizzy last season in terms of whether Steve McLendon should be playing instead of Casey Hampton. I've seen a great deal written in the past several weeks as people speculate on the draft and whether the Steelers are likely to draft yet another NT this spring. The general feeling is, if McLendon couldn't get on the field, despite the obvious shortcomings of Casey Hampton, particularly in the first half of the season, then the coaching staff must not be confident that McLendon is their NT of the future.

I have tended to feel, rather cynically, that the Steelers, knowing it was likely Hampton's last year in the Black and Gold, were trying to extract the maximum amount of goodness from him while keeping McLendon's value low by not putting his superior play on display. So far the Steelers have given me little reason to think I was correct. They didn't, of course, try to re-sign Hampton, but on the other hand the low tender they put on McLendon didn't make it seem they were worried about losing him. However, there's a lot of off-season to go.

In the meantime, I finally got around to reading my February Steelers Digest, and in it was Bob Labriola's very interesting assessment of all of last season's players. He doesn't pretend to have an inside track to the coach's thinking, but I'm guessing he probably has a better idea than any of us outside the organization who are endlessly speculating. Here's what he said about Steve McLendon:

Even Hampton believes McLendon deserves to be on the field, and so it figures to be in 2013 as the nose tackle. The work McLendon put in to go from being an undrafted rookie from Troy to being the favorite to start at nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers was considerable. For his sake, he better understand the work is not finished.

Labriola notes "The Steelers showed some faith in Ta'amu by giving him a second chance." It doesn't sound to me as if this second chance is anything more than the chance to compete for backup status. It also doesn't sound to me like the Steelers are particularly likely to look very hard at the NTs in the draft...

Defensive Ends:

Here's the snap count:


And here's the PFR AV:


No real surprises here, except to the PFF people, who really don't like Ziggy Hood...


I guess I'm surprised to see Brett Keisel second only to Carlos Dunlap. The rankings given varied from No. 3 (Dunlap) to No. 10 (Keisel) to No. 104 (DeAngelo Tyson). Confusingly, Haloti Ngata is listed as a defensive tackle by the Adv. NFL guys, but a DE by everyone else. So his WPA rating is good for No. 7 among tackles but only No. 18 or so among DEs.

And now, PFF, the guys who love to hate Ziggy Hood:


Believe it or not, Hood has made a lot of progress with the PFF guys, who rated him the worst 3-4 DE in the league in 2011. This year he is only the fourth worst, and his -10.0 is considerably better than last-place Darnell Docket's -15.4. Hood did actually receive a positive rating for his run coverage and lack of penalties. It's a start, I suppose. It is curious to me, though, how much the ratings can vary on certain players. For instance, this year everybody thinks Geno Atkins is the best. Even I think that : ) It's not surprising to see discrepancies between the rankings on different sites, as they have different methods and somewhat different priorities. But it is always surprising to me when a player varies so much in how they are perceived. I guess Wallace Gilberry knows how he feels, anyhow....

On to the linebackers. Let's begin with the ILBs:




Lawrence Timmons was ranked No. 1; Dannelle Ellerbe was next at No. 12. Josh Bynes held down No. 142.


Timmons was PFF's No. 5 ILB, their favorite from the AFC North. But once again we can see they put very different values on some players than the Advanced NFL Stats guys do. PFF's ranking of Rey Maualuga as the worst inside linebacker in the NFL is very different from the No. 81 of 209 given him by the Advanced NFL Stats guys. But then the guys at PFF weren't overly impressed with the AFC North linebackers in general...

And finally, OLBs:


A goodly number of the Cincinnati OLBs as well as Chris Carter of the Steelers barely made it over the obligatory (for me) 100-snap minimum. Despite the large number of OLBs on their roster, undrafted rookie Vontaze Burfict carried the lion's share of the load for the Bengals. Old Man of the Sea James Harrison carried the load in Pittsburgh...


Interestingly, according to PFR Chris Carter had value disproportionate to his number of snaps.


James Harrison was the top-rated OLB in the AFC North at No. 9. Of the players who had significantly more than the baseline 100 snaps, Manny Lawson, at No. 145, was probably the worst.


Lawson has a lot of competition for worst, according to the PFF guys. However, PFF divides up the 3-4 and 4-3 linebackers, so things aren't quite as bleak as they look. Harrison is No. 11 among all 3-4 OLBs, although Kruger and McClellan of the Ravens beat him out at Nos. 6 and 8 respectively. Meanwhile, Jason Worilds and Terrell Suggs are competing for worst OLB at No. 57 (Suggs) and 58 (Worilds.) They are still a good way off worst 3-4 OLB—that honor goes to Green Bay's Eric Walden (No. 72.) As for 4-3 OLBs, only Cleveland's Maiava makes it into the top 10. and Cleveland's Craig Robertson gets the worst AFC North ranking, at No. 103 of 111.

So, to drag ourselves painfully back to last summer, does all of this bear any resemblance to my predictions for the season? As noted in the Defensive Line article, I was unduly pessimistic about the Steelers' defensive line. But is this actually true, or, as the Advanced NFL Stats numbers would indicate, did excellent play from the linebackers and, to some extant, the secondary, mask inadequate play from the D-line? Or did the D-line end up being more than the sum of their individual parts? Certainly they improved a good deal as the season progressed, but it's also hard to say how much the improvement was due to, say, Casey Hampton's improvement, and how much to the improvement of James Harrison, or whoever? I posted a chart a couple of weeks ago showing a definite upward curve for Hampton, although, just like the rest of his career, he tended to have a good game followed by a couple of not-so-good ones. The good got better throughout the season, though, and the bad not as bad. Harrison, on the other hand, looked like a different player, stats-wise, between Week 10 and Week 11. Prior to Week 11 the highest rating he received from the PFF guys was a 1.0 in his first game back (Week 5,) and almost all his games were substantially above the line. In fact, this is such an interesting chart, here's a look:


Contrast this with Lawrence Timmons:


It's a mystery, I suppose. And ultimately it goes to show that trying to predict such things is a mug's game. I expect that for every team, every season, one is going to have good players who don't see the field because of injuries (Chris Gocong in this group of guys,) players who surprise you after a bad season (Lawrence Timmons,) rookies who unexpectedly step up (Vontaze Burfict,) and old injured guys who have a bit more in the tank than anyone thought (Ray Lewis, James Harrison, etc.) I suppose this is part of what makes football so exciting!

Next post will be the defensive backfield. Rest your eyes in the meantime, because there's bound to be plenty of stats to look at!