How Bad Is A Missed Tackle?

Missed tackles is something that Packers fans love to harp about and head coach Mike McCarthy has vowed to fix.  But really how important are missed tackles?

Missed tackles is one of those things that Packers fans and NFL fans on a whole love to gripe about.  Some blame the lack of padded practices due to the new CBA.  Some blame the new guidelines on where and more importantly where not to hit ball carriers.  Others will blame players for looking for "big hits" as opposed to just getting the guy on the ground.  But at the end of the day, how important are missed tackles?  Is a defense worse because it misses a lot of tackles?  Are players who miss a lot of tackles worse players because of it?  I think everyone's initial thought is "of course missed tackles are bad, the Packers are a terrible defense because they miss tackles", but in reality the Packers defense is bad for plenty other reasons but missing tackles is not one of them and here's why.  

Tackling statistics are inherently flawed

The first question to ask is what exactly is a tackle?  While that sounds like a pretty stupid question initially, when you break it down is the act of bringing down the ball carrier the only stipulation of a tackle?  Obviously, Clay Matthews destroying Chris Williams on the end around in week 10 last year is a tackle but what about a shoestring tackle or when a ball carrier trips over a defender or when a defender “cleans up” a tackle made mostly by his teammates?  Michael McKnight over at Sports Illustrated wrote a very poignant article about the “farce of tackling stats”; in summary, observer bias is incredibly relevant as there are big discrepancies in tackling statistics (such as the Chiefs only being marked for assisted tackles 7% of the time as opposed to Jets who recorded 44% assists on their tackles).  While recording tackles is difficult enough, missed tackles are even harder:  Football Outsiders spent 570 words over 5 paragraphs trying to describe what a broken tackle (their term for missed tackles) is. 

In 2014, Football Outsiders recorded the Packers missing 105 tackles, which ranked them 31st by percentage in the league.  Profootballfocus on the other hand marked the Packers for 120 missed tackles, which ranked 20th by percentage overall.  Other outlets presumably use their own internal references or the two listed above but in any situation, outside of sneaking into the Packers front office, no one will ever know how many missed tackles the Packers thought they had, and even then you still have the issue of observer bias (especially considering many defensive players have incentives based on tackling statistics) 

What this all really means is that just the “stat” of tackles and missed tackles is a huge crapshoot; it depends on the observers interpretation of what a tackle is, who is responsible and a variety of other factors to the point that even the NFL itself hasn’t figured out what constitutes a tackle let alone what a missed tackle is. 

Context is important for missed tackles

All missed tackles are bad right?  That might not entirely be the case.  Take for instance Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (who is becoming pretty well known for whiffing on ball carriers), coming up in run support, squares his shoulders to a running back, and then completely whiffs as the running back jumps over him since he ducked his head (cue fan screaming).  In this situation, there’s probably no situation where this is a positive play for Clinton-Dix. 

Now imagine it’s late in the 4th quarter and the Packers are protecting the lead.  A wide receiver catches the ball over a cornerback who slips and Clinton-Dix has to come from the other side of the field at a bad angle to make the stop.  Clinton-Dix dives towards the receiver, who is forced away from the sideline who then gets tackled in bounds by the trailing cornerback.  In this situation a missed tackle is actually a positive since Clinton-Dix kept the clock running at the expensive of yards, which is the correct action when trying to protect the lead. 

Furthermore, Is BJ Raji missing a wide receiver on a bubble screen as bad as when Sam Shields does the same?  Of course not, BJ Raji should be commended for his hustle for even being in a position to make a tackle considering his size and starting location while Shields should be marked poorly for something that is decidedly part of his responsibility.  Is a missed tackle from head on worse than a missed tackle from a poor angle?  I would say yes initially but is the defender coming in at a poor angle the fault of the defender, or is he covering for someone else’s mistake?  Is the offense scheming to make that defender tackle from a poor angle?  Is a cornerback missing a tackle bad because he was going for the interception instead?  What about when one defender blocks another from making a proper tackle?  

Each one of these examples highlights the fact that missing a tackle is not always necessarily a bad thing and missed tackles should be graded based on context.

Missed tackles have no correlation to defensive efficiency

While you may or may not believe in my assertions above, I am not saying that missing tackles in principle is a good thing.  In the Chiefs game alone, it looked like every touchdown scored by Jamal Charles could have been stopped if the defender had made the tackle (it should be noted that there were plenty of occasions where Packers defenders did stop Charles from scoring as well). 

However, from a broader perspective, missing tackles appears to have little to no effect on how good a defense is.  The figure below plots Football Outsiders broken tackles versus the defensive DVOA for the last 3 seasons. 

The r2 for data is .03691 (again correlation is a measure of how related two variables are: a value of 1 is perfect correlation, -1 is perfect inverse correlation and 0 is no correlation), essentially meaning there is no correlation between how good a defense is and how many missed tackles it has.  Of course on a play by play level missing tackles can result in giving up points which may in fact result in losing a game but when given enough sample size (i.e. an entire season) it appears that missed tackles do not impact a team’s fortunes. 

For instance, the Chicago Bears had the 2nd best missed tackle percentage last year but as every Packers fan can attest to, their defense was putrid, ranking 28th overall.  On the other side of the spectrum, the Seahawks in 2014 went down as one of the most efficient in league history but they only ranked 9th in missed tackles.  Of course as I mentioned above missed tackle stats are inherently misleading but it would take a lot of variance, of which is beyond me to calculate, but I would guess that going from r2 of .03691 to something that’s actually correlated would take more than just could be accounted for by biased observers. 

I think most fans are aware that not all points are worth the same, a touchdown in garbage time is not worth the same as a touchdown that ties the game.  The same can be said about missed tackles, while the act of missing a tackle in theory is always bad (just like scoring a touchdown in theory is always good), it’s a lot more nuanced than just a number.

 

 

 

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Comments (25)

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

October 01, 2015 at 07:41 pm

HEALTH ADVISORY FOR SINCE '61: READING THIS ARTICLE COULD LEAD TO HEART ATTACKS, APOPLETIC FIT, OR OTHER SERIOUS HEALTH CONDITIONS!!

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Bearmeat's picture

October 01, 2015 at 11:00 pm

lol

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:12 am

For the record, I wrote this before Jay's post came out, so don't blame me for a heart attack.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

October 02, 2015 at 04:36 pm

Thomas, Sorry, you're still on the hook. My health advisory to Since '61 is due to several posts he made during Chicago and Seattle games about missed tackles and discussions last year about execution. Jay's post and the Nicholas poster had nothing to do with my health advisory.

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johngalt's picture

October 01, 2015 at 08:13 pm

You can spin it any way you want. Tackling is a fundamental part of the game. As a coach myself- I know what goes into sound, consistent fundamentals. Some try to make up for a lack of tackling skill with speed. Speed helps- but this short-fall will get exposed at the professional level. There is no substitute for sound fundamentals. The seahawks are the standard in my book. I show film of them all the time to our boys. Seattle gets it done- team wide- consistently. They are fun to watch & are the standard by which others should be measured. Have been for the last few years. They excel at coaching sound fundamentals. Something tells me Mike Daniels lets his DB's know when they need to step it up. GB will get better. They also have good coaches.

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:14 am

I think it's important to note I'm definitely not advocating players missing tackles or not having sound fundamentals, I'm arguing that missing tackles typically does not effect the quality of your defense.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

October 01, 2015 at 08:08 pm

To paraphrase Justice Stewart: I know a broken tackle when I see one. Just because there is some difficulty in defining and quantifying something does not mean that no attempt to do so should be made or that it has no meaning or effect.

Mostly, missed tackles are bad, imo. There is little and usually no causal connection between missing a tackle and the ball carrier fumbling 10 yards later, or staying in bounds instead of going out of bounds. The second action is a discrete incident.

The graph is interesting. GB has never struck me as a swarming defense. Missing a tackle in such a case means that there often is no other defender near by to clean up. Obviously if your defense is so bad that players are not in a position to make a tackle, there is no opportunity to have a missed tackle. This is a passing league: is tackling the most important factor in pass defense or is coverage ability? Still, .03 suggests virtually no correlation, and is surprising to me.

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:21 am

Ironically, this kinda of ties back into Rodgers PFF grade; we all know what a good quarterback performance is (and vs. Kansas City was definitely a good QB performance), but it becomes very difficult to quantify and observer bias is a big issue. PFF obviously felt that Rodger's performance wasn't all that spectacular (or did depending on which revision you caught them at), but what I consider a missed tackle might be considered by you as a being blocked away from the ball carrier.

I would argue that almost no action outside of maybe snapping the football is a discrete action on a football play, if it were, like baseball, statistics would be a lot more useful, there are hundreds of factors in each play that dictate how well a player performed in any situation.

Finally, I would have to look into it, but considering pass rushers and cornerbacks are paid considerably more than inside linebackers and safeties I would assume that pass defense is far more important, at least from the team's perspective, than tackling ability.

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Fonzie's picture

October 02, 2015 at 12:00 am

Very nice piece, Thomas. Fascinating conclusions, which were surprising, compelling and supported by data. Love that.

A quick question though: was the .03691 value a correlation coefficient (the "r" statistic) or a coefficient of determination (r-squared)? Which one it was won't make much of a difference to your conclusions at all, but if it is in fact r, then the percentage of variance explained (the r-squared) drops to even more pitiful levels (0.13%), further strengthening your case.

Bottom line, though, is that you did an excellent piece featuring conclusions that are sound whether we're talking about r or r-squared.

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:22 am

the value is for r2

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croatpackfan's picture

October 02, 2015 at 03:52 am

I'm not surprised. Who was tackling leader for Packers during 2011-2014 seasons? ANd we know how that finished. Answer is A. J. Hawk!

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:23 am

One thing that I did want to look at was somehow focusing on inside linebackers (who are supposed to be the teams best tacklers) and DVOA. But you are correct, AJ Hawk did lead the team in tackles but then again he was terrible in pass defense which is probably why he was finally released.

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The TKstinator's picture

October 02, 2015 at 06:30 am

I would just go by how the coaches evaluate their tacklers. And they're not going to share that with the fans. But in-house, I'd bet there are no mysteries as to who the good, bad, and ugly tacklers are.

One thing I DO wonder about is this: if a guy is a sketchy tackler in college, can he possibly IMPROVE in the NFL? I would ASSume that NFL players are more difficult to tackle than collegians, and the restrictions in practice would be an additional hurdle as well.

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:29 am

NFL players can be improved by actually being taught how to tackle. While you'd figure that the players coming out of Alabama or another NFL factory school would be properly trained in tackling, smaller schools with less resources may not have the same training programs in place.

One other thing to consider is that half of rookies coming into the NFL probably have little to no experience tackling; i.e offensive players. To get into the NFL, these players were probably the best at their high schools and colleges, meaning they probably never played special teams or defense. But of course in the NFL everyone is talented and many players have to start from the bottom on special teams. You hear a lot of stories like Jeff Janis, where the first time he probably ever tackled anyone is in the NFL.

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Tundraboy's picture

October 02, 2015 at 07:28 am

I'm sure Lombardi would have had some strong words on this. A missed tackle is just that a missed tackle, not good.

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:30 am

Are all missed tackles all not good? Are they all not good by the same amount or is there a scale?

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Tundraboy's picture

October 02, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Some have worse results than others, but since tackling the ball carrier is the objective missing a tackle is not what you aim for that's for sure.

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 12:35 pm

i agree, as I mentioned in the article, I am not saying missing tackles is a good thing. I am say that in most cases missing a tackle does not make a defense less efficient.

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Tundraboy's picture

October 02, 2015 at 02:18 pm

Thanks for article as always. Here's to a solid D that continues to improve!

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joepacker's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:20 am

Stat references in the media have blown up in recent years. I have this thought that sites like Football Outsiders and Profootballfocus are completely overwhelmed. I imagine banks of bespeckled, pimple cheeked geeks furiously pounding laptops trying to form stories from numbers and provide numbers for the stories.

This strange Kabalah aside, missed tackles are simply missed tackles. Any positive outcome would be infinitesimal and offset by the erosion of strength and spirit that build dominance in a game. Numbers don't wins games.

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:36 am

I think you're going to have to start getting used to "bespeckled, pimple cheeked geeks" in the NFL. With fantasy football and betting as popular as every, football statistics is going to become a regular thing.

At least on this website, stories are at the end of the day more important than the numbers; I could dump tons of analyses that I've done on the site that I didn't use for an article and no one would care. But trying to make an assertion without evidence can be pretty pointless as well, I can say pretty much anything I want but if I don't back it up with proof people won't care either.

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johngalt's picture

October 02, 2015 at 03:50 pm

Missed tackle=missed opportunity to end the play.

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hobbes's picture

October 02, 2015 at 05:44 pm

True but missed tackle != any difference in missed opportunity to end the play. In other words, missing a tackle does not necessarily put the defense in a worse position.

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johngalt's picture

October 02, 2015 at 03:50 pm

Missed tackle=missed opportunity to end the play.

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Clay Zombo's picture

October 02, 2015 at 11:58 pm

My only point would be, a good defense that misses a lot of tackles would be a better defense without them.

Missed tackles lead to more yards, first downs and TDs. If you can miss a tackle and still not give up 1st down or a TD than its not that big of deal.

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