Old Mother Hubbard: The Defense & Shopping List

>> 3.02.2012


One of the problems with a position-by-position breakdown of a team is getting too wrapped up in the individual. We start getting obsessed with that old bugaboo, “filling holes,” and we end up wanting to spend “a second or third rounder” on every single position.

Let’s take a look at the whole.

The 49ers were the NFL’s top defense last season at +240.3, and as you see they had basically no flaws. Their run defense was the best run defense. Their pass rush was the second-best pass rush (Philly’s was top), their pass coverage was fourth-best, and they were right in the middle of the pack on penalties.

At the bottom were the Saints, who at -130.3 had nearly no strengths. Their run defense was 24th, their pass coverage was 28th, and their pass rush was dead last. Penalty-wise, though, they were neck-and-neck with the 49ers at right around the league average.

The Lions were 26th overall at -20.1. You can't see it here, but they were at the bottom of the "neutral-to-meh" tier. The next-best defense was Buffalo at -20.7, then the grades fall into the abyss with Green Bay at -60 and on down from there.

At -8.6, the Lions run defense ranked 26th, and again was at the bottom of the “meh” tier. The Rams were -10, the Cardinals twice that bad . . . and then pretty much it falls apart. In pass coverage, the Lions were graded out at -12.3, above the NFL average of -14.3 and ranked 13th overall.

Ahem. “In pass coverage, the Lions were graded out at -12.3, above the NFL average of -14.3 and ranked 13th overall.

Actually, the Lions were ranked amongst the top ten for much of the season, as was the pass rush—which, as you might have noticed, is nothing too fearsome, either. As one began to tail off, so did the other. Ultimately, the pass rush finished 10th-best in the NFL at +22.1, well above the average of +12.4.

Does this mean there’s a correlation between pass rush PFF grades and pass coverage PFF grades? NOPE.


Remember, PFF assigns grades based on observed performance, period. If a cornerback does a good job in coverage, he does a good job in coverage no matter how good the delivered ball was—or if it was delivered at all. The Lions’ pass coverage tailed off at the end of the year because of injuries to Chris Houston and Louis Delmas, and not because the pass rush wasn’t good enough.

That said, the pass rush wasn't good enough.

Now, the shopping list:

  • DTs: None, unless they choose to let Corey Williams walk.
  • DEs: Re-sign Cliff Avril.
  • ILBs: Re-sign Stephen Tulloch, or acquire his replacement: a high draft pick or proven veteran starter.
  • OLBs: If Tulloch is retained, re-sign Levy or acquire a starter to replace him. If Tulloch is not retained and Durant is moved to the middle, re-sign Levy AND acquire a starter.
  • CBs: A rookie with long-term starter potential, or a veteran starter.
  • Ss: A veteran upgrade over Spievey, or a talented rookie to compete with him.
Next up, the centers.


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.

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