Akeem Jordan, The Forgotten Man?

John Breitenbach wrote a post on BGN about the underrated abilities of Akeem Jordan. He goes through all the phases of the game with Pro Football Focus stats and includes nice game shots. Here’s his final analysis:

I’m not trying to make Jordan out to be some sort of superstar but it’s a shame he receives such little respect from Eagle fans. He was undrafted (and went to a tiny school) but he’s worked his way to become at the very least a serviceable NFL starter. At just 26, who’s to say he won’t get better? If you’re looking for someone to challenge Kendricks for the strongside spot, pay less attention to Jamar Chaney, and more to #56.

I’m not going to make Breitenbach’s argument into a straw man; it’s a reasonable and measured conclusion. Maybe Jordan is better than we think. However, I think there are three main rebuttal points:

  1. Jordan isn’t as good in coverage as those numbers illustrate. Breitenbach places Jordan’s coverage stats (09-11) side-by-side with Lance Briggs, and Jordan looks good. Certainly his completion percentage is lower (and therefore better). But, for one thing, Breitenbach doesn’t mention that the sample sizes are quite different. Jordan had only 372 coverage snaps during those three seasons, compared to 607 for Briggs just last year. When you look at targets per coverage snap (i.e. how often he was picked on), Jordan suddenly looks subpar.
  2. I don’t think there’s much evidence, based on Breitenbach’s numbers, that tackling is one of Jordan’s “greatest strengths.” He missed 9.2% of his tackles from 09-11, which would have been good enough for 20th last year among 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 25% of their team’s snaps. That actually does make him one of the better tacklers on the Eagles LB corps, but that’s not a whole lot to brag about.
  3. Finally, the most damning evidence against Jordan is simply that he hasn’t been able to hold a starting job—even when his competition has been so bad. Breitenbach mentions the atrocious Ernie Sims. Moise Fokou, Casey Matthews, Jamar Chaney… the list goes on and on of the guys coaches played before Jordan. He got more snaps after Fokou was benched, then placed on injured reserve in the last month of 2011, but that wasn’t a vote of confidence as much as Plan Z.

Jordan is a great special teams player and he’s fine as a backup. But I doubt any good defense considers Akeem for a starting role.

Tackling: Eagles Linebackers vs. DeMeco Ryans

DeMeco Ryans Tackle

If you’re like me, you haven’t seen many Texans games and you don’t know much about DeMeco Ryans other than by his reputation. Some folks study by watching game film, and I highly recommend you read up for that perspective. My habit is to reach for the stats.

The stats, of course, are incomplete. This is especially true when trying to quantifying the production of a middle linebacker. With defensive linemen you can look at sacks. With corners you can look at interceptions and yards per attempt against. But middle linebackers are tough.

Largely we look at tackles to tell us about our linebackers, but that’s by far from a perfect statistic. Tackles are influenced by the broader scheme, the intricacies that make even 4-3 defenses different, and the performance of players in front and behind the defense’s middle management.

Still, it’s all we have, so we might as well use it up. Jimmy Kempski, that mustachoed maven of the NFC East, wrote a post yesterday in which he pulled “Snaps Per Tackle” from 25 inside linebackers last season.

To take what he’s done one step further, and give it a more Eagles-bent, I used similar data from Pro Football Focus. However, I only looked at snaps and tackles in the run game. Below you can find the middle linebacker performance of both Eagles linebackers and Ryans since 2008:

Eagles Linebackers DeMeco Ryans Tackling Stats

Because of all the factors involved (as well as inevitable inconsistencies in the original data), I wouldn’t blow any one of these numbers out of proportion. Tackles, missed tackles, and stops all together can give us a interesting look at production.

Examining the Eagles stats first though, it looks like stop percentage may be the most relevant stat of the bunch. Tackle percentages are all over the map, and missed tackles can depend so much on just a few plays. But stops — not tackles for a loss, but prevention of a “positive” play — seem to correspond to what our eyes tell us is a good linebacker play. For example, both Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews scored very poorly in 2011 by this measure, while Chaney’s moments of glory at the end of 2010 account for his high marks then.

Looking just at Ryans’s stats, it’s obvious that he had a down year in 2011. Not only did the new 3-4 scheme limit his playing time, but he was less productive across the board on a per snap basis. Ryans’s stop percentage dropped dramatically last year, and is the lowest figure on among all players listed above. Prior to his 2010 achilles injury though, he posted solid, if not spectacular numbers. Missed tackles were really his only run defense problem in 2008-2009.

At the end of the day, the numbers suggest some cause for worry, especially about his most recent performance. However, if Ryans can return to his pre-injury performance in a 4-3 scheme, the Eagles have found a very solid middle linebacker going forward.

Photo from Getty.

Will Nate Allen Finally Break Out in 2012?

John Breitenbach, for Pro Football Focus:

Having said that, Allen’s performances late in the season can give Eagles fans hope going into 2012. Following that New England debacle, he graded positively in each of the last five games, amassing a grade of +7.2 in that span. Overall, he finished at +3.8, good enough for 15th in the league last year. He looks ready to break out if he can remain fully healthy in 2012.

Over the last two seasons, Nate Allen has had stretches of games where he’s looked like an above average starter with good coverage and acceptable tackling ability. In his third season, maintaining that level through all 16 games would be a big boost to the Eagles defense.

Also check out Breitenbach’s take on some potential low-cost veteran additions to compete for the other safety spot.

By the Numbers: A Fall From Grace

Andy Reid Vince Young Eagles

At the end of Sunday’s game two players were firmly seated on their respective benches. One was Tom Brady, leader of an elite but far from perfect team, who took a rest after amassing a three touchdown lead. The other was DeSean Jackson, talented underachiever on a league-basement team, who was benched for poor play while the Eagles were trying desperately to come back.

There may be a more apt and fair comparison, but to me that distinction illustrates exactly how far the Eagles have fallen. They used to be an elite squad. Not anymore.

Let’s check the numbers:

7 = Times the Patriots entered Eagles territory. They scored 5 touchdowns and went 1 for 2 on field goal attempts on those 7 possessions. That touchdown percentage would be worst in the league for opponent trips to the red zone, let alone crossing the 50 yard line.

2 = Official tackles by Jamar Chaney. There is no doubt that on Sunday Chaney missed more tackles than he made. See the entries under “No need for linebackers” and “fundamentally sound” in the Eagles coaching handbook.

400 = Largely worthless passing yards by Vince Young. That is, however, a single game career high.

40% = Completion percentage on passes targeted at DeSean Jackson. Young’s total would have been even higher if not for Jackson letting two touchdowns and another 75 to 100 yards slip through his fingers. DeSean’s stock has never been lower. It is increasingly likely not only that he’s playing for another team next season but that the Eagles won’t be able to get back much for his services.

10 = Eagles penalties, for 60 yards.

6 = First half carries by LeSean McCoy. The Patriots secondary is bad and the Eagles were able to take advantage of that matchup frequently, so I won’t belabor the “Why won’t you run the ball?” point. But the Patriots were also deficient against the run, no matter what Reid said in his post game press conference. Especially in a game when the goal needed to be keeping Tom Brady off the field, McCoy should have been more of a factor. You can bet that’s what Jim Washburn was heckling Marty Mornhinweg about on the sideline.

.125 = Eagles win percentage at Lincoln Financial Field since Week 16 of last season. Seeing so many fans stream out of the stadium with a quarter left to play can’t have made Jeff Lurie happy.

Photo from Getty.

Fundamentally Sound

“First of all, what we’re going to do is be fast and physical, and we’re going to be fundamentally sound. We have good players here. This is the NFL, you change, you upgrade, players get hurt, but that’s what we’re going to do.”

Nodding…

NFL Missed Tackles 2011 Weeks 1-9

(Data from Pro Football Focus)

Why “Be Fundamentally Sound” is a Worthless Strategy

Every NFL coach or coordinator who’s ever taken a job has emphasized “fundamentals.” On the defensive side, you have to play aggressively, be physical, make sound tackles. Yet, according to his statements over the last few days, that’s essentially new Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s entire plan: “be fundamentally sound.”

Certainly we wouldn’t expect Castillo to lay out his whole defensive philosophy in his first press conference. But two years ago, when Sean McDermott replaced the late Jim Johnson, we did get an immediate sense that McDermott had a clear idea of his Xs and Os. On his first day, the former coordinator said:

"There is one thing I know, and that is that this system, it works. Jim has spent a considerable amount of time in his coaching career researching and finding things that work and finding things that didn’t work, quite frankly, and I’m going to respect that and we’re going to build on that. From there we’ll add wrinkles."

McDermott obviously had a plan to take the blitz concepts and continue to tinker with them. When asked basically the same question, Castillo replied:

“First of all, what we’re going to do is be fast and physical, and we’re going to be fundamentally sound. We have good players here. This is the NFL, you change, you upgrade, players get hurt, but that’s what we’re going to do.”

Since Castillo has defended those talking points recently on the radio as being the key to his success as an offensive line coach, we can assume for now that it’s essentially his philosophy. At this point you might say: what’s wrong with emphasizing fundamentals? McDermott was a scheme guy, and that didn’t turn out particularly well. Maybe if we get a coordinator who puts a priority on tackling and other basics, that will be enough to put the defense over the top.

There are two problems with this line of thinking. First, teaching fundamentals alone won’t set you apart. Doesn’t every coach teach fundamentals? You don’t think Super Bowl defensive coordinators Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers put their teams through endless tackling and other drills in practice? Of course they do. But they also have talented players and put them in good positions to succeed through complex coverage and pressure schemes.

The second problem is that this theory is based on an underlying bias we have toward valuing what we can see. The biggest example of this is missed tackles. Every fan and their grandmother can see when Asante Samuel whiffs on a running back coming right at him or Juqua Parker comes up empty on an easy sack. At the end of the game, we tend to blame these mistakes for the defense’s failure and make comments like, “they need to go back to fundamentals.”

Yet missed tackles are only one tiny part of a horrible defensive play or series. Think about everything else that went into that: bad play calling, inadequate scheme, unbalanced one-on-one match ups, lack of player talent, poor decision-making and play recognition, failure to get off blocks or take a correct angle on the ball-carrier, even luck. All these factors matter much more than a given missed tackle, but we only remember Nate Allen diving for the running back’s ankles and coming up empty.

Statistically, though, fewer missed tackles has zero correlation to a better defense. There’s no connection between missed tackles and opponent yards, points, or touchdowns per drive. Why? Because while missed tackles stick out in our minds, there aren’t enough to radically affect the success of defense. The difference between the very best and very worst tackling teams in the NFL in 2010 is about three missed tackles per game. Insignificant.

That’s why it’s worrisome to hear that Castillo’s only talking point is that the defense in 2011 is going to “be fundamentally sound.” That might work in the offensive line trenches, but in the grand chess match of offensive vs. defensive coordinators, fundamentals just don’t make as big of a difference.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.