Old Mother Hubbard: The Safeties

>> 2.28.2012

louis_delmas_detroit_lionsWe round up the defense with the last line of defense: the safeties. Though the cornerbacks took the brunt of public criticism in the last two games, many of the high-profile failures of the secondary in 2012 were actually the fault of the safeties. With Louis Delmas at full speed, Amari Spievey growing into his newfound role, and veteran Erik Coleman coming on board as an insurance policy for both spots, this wasn’t supposed to happen. So what happened?

First, let's look at what 2010's Safety Old Mother Hubbard had to say:

Louis Delmas is an athletic, hard-hitting safety who can make big plays against the run and the pass. Despite being limited by injury, he proved extremely effective on the blitz this year. If he can go full speed, he should be one of the best safeties in the NFL next season.

Amari Spievey is a talented, hardworking kid with the raw ability to be a very good safety. He struggled with consistency and mental mistakes in his first season, and this offseason will be crucial in finding out if he’s a long-term starter or medium-term rotational player.



Detroit Lions safeties 2011 grades, with Pro Football Focus and Advanced NFL Stats

The best safety in the NFL this year was Troy Polamalu, with an outstanding +19.2  PFF overall grade. He was the NFL’s best blitzing safety, 4th-best in coverage, and 3rd against the run. His 3 penalties called on 930 snaps dinged him just a little. He was 2nd-best in +WPA with a walloping +1.90, meaning he made a huge impact on the Steelers’ chances to win, and his 3rd-best 50.5 +EPA shows he was constantly making positive plays.

On the other side of the PFF ledger, the worst-graded safety in football was Minnesota’s Jamarca Sanford. The polar opposite of Polamalu, Sanford was strongly negative in pass rush, coverage, and run-stopping (but got a small boost from only being flagged once). His -18.2 overall grade was powered mainly by a -15.2 coverage mark, also worst in the biz.

Now here's where things get interesting: Sanford had a 32.2 +EPA and 0.77 +WPA, which were the 23rd- and 36th-best figures in the NFL, respectively. This means Sanford was generating enough positive production to rate as a decent starting safety, but his coverage gaffes were so repeated and pronounced that PFF graded him the worst safety to crack an NFL rotation!



Pro Football Focus grades are based on TV footage, and while I believe completely in what they do over there, downfield pass coverage grades are the area where they have the hardest time figuring out what’s going on. Without knowing each player’s assignment, and most of the secondary being offscreen at the snap, PFF safety grades have limitations.

Advanced NFL Stats' +EPA measures the expected points added by a player’s positive plays, but cannot measure failures. Cornerbacks are the position where “lack of failure” is arguably more important than positive playmaking, so again—there are real limitations here. Same applies to +WPA: a timely interception can swing the likelihood of winning around very quickly, but a surrendered touchdown can too—and that won’t show up in +WPA.

To sum up: PFF grades and ANS metrics are never going to be more variant and contradictory than when assessing cornerbacks (and safeties are a close second). However, this increases the value of both sets of data. Though we’re going to have to fill in the gaps ourselves, it’s better to know reality lies in the gap than unwittingly treating one number as gospel.

The top-graded Detroit Lions safety was Louis Delmas. Delmas, most Lions fans probably have a vague sense of, was not the playmaker he was in 2009, despite being fully recovered from his groin injury of 2010. In coverage, that’s a good thing: safeties are typically only noticed in coverage when there’s a problem. Pro Football Focus backs this notion up: Delmas was +4.7 in coverage, 10th-best amongst 87 qualifying NFL safeties.

Overall, Delmas's -2.0 grade was slightly above the normalized NFL average of -2.8. But was he really that bad? Drilling down into his grades, we see mostly positives and neutrals and one big nasty red mark: a brutal -5.3 against San Francisco. Most of that was 3 missed tackles against the run, but some of it was allowing three first downs through the air on three “Thrown At”s.

So except for Week 6, and the last 5 games of the regular season (out with an MCL injury, and 'scope to repair it) Louis Delmas, veteran safety, was back there doing his job.

We missed “Da Missile.”

If we in his horrific wild card performance (-6.5, clearly not ready to play), Delmas graded strongly negative against the run in five games, and strongly positive only once. In 2010 and 2009 those ratios were 4:3 and 3:4, respectively. On the flip side, Delmas’s 2011 coverage grades had 2 negatives and 2 positives, an improvement from 4:1 and 3:2.

Statistically, Delmas did very well, allowing just 15 of the 28 balls thrown his way to be caught. He also held completions to an average of just 9.7 yards each, 7th-best in the NFL. He had no interceptions, and just four passes defensed, but also allowed just one touchdown and a 25th-best opponent passer rating of 80.4 (NFL avg.: 90.7).

While Delmas's pass coverage is very good and getting more consistent, his run-stuffing is getting worse. He had 46 solo tackles, 1 assist, and 18 defensive stops. But he missed 12 tackles, 1 per every 3.88 tackles made (seventh-worst in the NFL, well below average of 8.6). In fact, using my metric of “missed tackles per tackles made” (solos plus one-half assists), Lions safeties ranked 64th (Spievey), 80th (Delmas), and 85th (Harris) out of 86.

It’s possible, then, that this is schematic. Relying on the back seven to gang-tackle players the line has allowed through is bound to make it much tougher on the safeties. However, I’ve seen Louis Delmas singlehandedly drop Steven Jackson in the open field with a full head of steam. He’s a better tackler than that.

+EPA agrees with me. Delmas's 19.3 total is low, you'd think because he only played in 12 games. But he was ranked 52nd of 123 in total +EPA, and 50th in +EPA/game with 1.61. His plus-play production was mediocre at best. His +WPA is right in line with his +EPA (and the NFL average) at 0.52. In terms of playmaking, Delmas was at what baseball people call "replacement level;" you can get a safety like that anywhere.

So what now? Last year, I said if Delmas “can go full speed,” he should be “one of the best safeties in the NFL.” Instead he was good in coverage, poor against the run, and mostly invisible when counting the kind of splash plays that used to be his calling card.

Bottom Line: Delmas’s career is at a crossroads. Will he bloom into the all-around badass he looked like as a rookie? Or will he remain a good coverage safety who needs help from a partner? There’s no doubt he has the physical tools and the mental tenacity to be an elite, playmaking safety but something’s missing and I don’t know what.

Chris Harris was an odd, but valuable midseason addition. After the Lions picked apart Chris Harris and the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, Harris was released—and the Lions picked him up. Harris’ -7.3 overall PFF grade was below the NFL average of -2.8, tied for 65th out of 86.  Harris was solid against the run; his +0.3 run-stopping grade was just above the NFL average of -0.3. He also kept his nose clean: no penalties called despite a 400-snap workload.

Unfortunately, Harris was just as susceptible to the pass in Detroit as he was in Chicago. He turned in five strongly negative coverage grades out of ten games played; none positive. In fact, he only had one positive mark all season long: a +1.3 against the run in Week 17 at Green Bay—yes, The Game Where They Passed For A Thousand Yards. His +EPA and +WPA were meager, even considering his reduced workload.

I don't mean to be overly harsh on Harris; switching schemes midseason only to be pressed into a starter's workload must be extremely difficult. His Pro Football Focus data for 2008, 2009, and 2010 reveals an average all-around NFL starter; he just had a profoundly down year. The 29-year-old Harris will have to earn 2012 playing time in camp, whether that's in Detroit or elsewhere.

Bottom Line: Chris Harris did about as well as you could ask of a guy who got cut midseason, picked up by another team, and pressed into starting the last five games of a playoff race: not very well. May return as the rotational third safety next season.

And now? The man, the myth, the enigma: Amari Spievey.

Drafted in 2010 to “fill a hole” at cornerback, Spievey’s odd-duck skill set and lack of conditioning got him an immediate switch to safety—and trip to the doghouse. Still, Spievey flashed brilliance in 2010. His physicality made the switch intact, and his not-quite-good-enough-for-cornerback hips still channeled impressive recovery speed.

Of course, he needed that speed as he struggled to keep his head above water last season, and this season was no different. His -11.5 overall grade was partly informed by his -2.2 blitz grade and -3.2 coverage marks, but was his brutal -7.5 against the run that dragged his PFF grade into the murky depths.

Technically, Spievey got better as the season went along; his two positively-graded games came in Weeks 14 and 16, at home against the Vikings and Chargers. But his Wild Card performance was a brutal -4.6, and the rest of his 2011 chart is dripping red as well.

Spievey’s 1:3 TD-allowed-to-INT ratio helped lower his opponent passer rating to a team-best (NFL 13th-best) 63.4. However, his 62.5% completion percentage and 14.6 YpR shows he was a lot easier to beat through the air then Delmas. On the ground, Spievey was the surest-tackling safety the Lions had, missing one for every 4.96 solos+half-assists. Unfortunately, that’s still 64th-worst in the NFL, and significantly worse than the NFL average of 8.6. As I said, scheme may play a part here, but . . .

Spievey's three picks gave him the best +EPA of any Lion at 22.9; that's not great. However, of that meager production he wrung +0.65 +WPA, slightly above-average and the best the Lions had to offer.

Bottom Line: Spievey is no less an enigma than when the season started, but the flashes of brilliance remained flashes and the prolonged stretches of awful remained awful. Like Delmas, his performance in 2012 will decide his long-term future.

SHOPPING LIST: A common theme is developing: “The Lions have some decisions to make” about the safeties. Delmas returns as the starting free safety—but is he a game-changing foundational piece, or a solid role player? Harris supplanted Coleman as the third safety, but will he return? Spievey will have a chance to earn that spot next to Delmas—but the Lions NEED better production than what he’s been able to provide; the safety play in 2011 was unacceptably poor

A veteran upgrade over Spievey, or a talented rookie to compete with him, are a must if the Lions are to shore up the secondary that was so thoroughly exposed at the end of 2011.


Chris,  February 29, 2012 at 2:10 PM  

In your opinion whats the bigger need CB or Safety help Ty?

Flamekeeper_Ty,  February 29, 2012 at 2:22 PM  

Safety, absolutely. I'm comfortable with Houston/Berry/Wright again. Not so with Delmas/Spirvey/Harris.

Jeremy Reisman,  February 29, 2012 at 2:56 PM  

Love this, as always, but I'm growing more skeptical of these WPA and EPA stats involved.

Those stats are great for determining how big a play (or player) was to getting the "W", but I'm not sure they're a good stat to use for evaluating a player as a whole.

Big plays are created by a myriad of factors; talent being only one of these factors. A tipped ball could lead to an interception by a guy who was actually out of position, but if he takes it to the house, he gets rewarded with a huge EPA or WPA (correct me I'm wrong).

I'm very curious as to whether the players that rank high on WPA and EPA consistently rank alongside the elite in that category or if it's quite variable every year.

If you have any more information on the stats, please let me know.

Alex,  February 29, 2012 at 11:43 PM  

Interesting stats on Delmas. I was under the impression that he was better against the run then the pass but the stats prove otherwise. IMO it was alot to do with the fact he's been playing with 2 major injuries the last too years that make it hard to break down and tackle. At least I hope thats the case.
As for Spievey, I have alot of hope that he can be a really good safety but I'm not sure how long the Lions can wait for that to happen. It's asking alot of a guy to expect him to be great at a position he learned in the pros and has only been doing for 2 years, one of those years without a off season. One thing I did notice and agree with is his speed, which is awesome.
Another great breakdown as always, Thanks for theses articles Ty!

Dennis Schwartz,  March 1, 2012 at 1:35 PM  

Delmas and Spievey are an adequate group and resources should not be directed to safeties this year.

I expect all four to be back as I think continuity would go along way to shoring up the inconsistencies we see.

Besides the emphasis should be on the front seven and figuring out how to apply the pressure necessary to cover up the deficiencies in the secondary.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  March 2, 2012 at 10:15 AM  

See, I'm not so sure. Spievey's lapses in coverage definitely hurt the secondary this year, and if you're relying on the back seven to stop the run then they actually need to do it.

I agree that the pressure from the front four has to be better, though.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  March 2, 2012 at 10:17 AM  

Alex, Delmas WAS better against the run than the pass. I'm not sure if it's maturity, or just a fluke, or what . . . some folks are suggesting he's gunshy after all the injuries.

Maybe he's being coached to take a little heat off in order to play smart. Maybe he's being coached to cover more for Spievey's mistakes . . . maybe he lacks the confidence to come forward because of Spievey's mistakes.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  March 2, 2012 at 10:20 AM  

Right, they're a tool--one I felt had to be included to get a whole picture.

The PFF grades have a bias the other way: they really like solid contributors with no holes in their game, but aren't impressed by "home run hitters" whose home runs can change the face of--even singlehandedly win--games.

I'm the first to agree that the hype over Suh's rookie season was partly that, hype--but to suggest that he's an unremarkable/average player because he's not plopping his butt down at the line of scrimmage and arm-tackling running backs is silly.

Dubbs091999,  March 18, 2012 at 8:31 PM  

Detroit is pissin me off the dbs and saftys are horrible they havent pick up no vetern saftys or dbs to aleast compete dont wait for the draft with the picks we have we are not gettin talent but leftovers

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