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Grading edge rushers the right way

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The war on box score analysis continues...

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Kansas City Chiefs vs Oakland Raiders Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is part two of RealMNchiefsfan’s War on Box Score Analysis. You can read the first part, focusing on quarterback analysis, right here. He also discussed part one in depth on The Chief In The North (episode 34).

If you’re reading this, you probably know what this is all about. In case you don’t, I’ve declared an all-out war on the following line of thinking:

Fan 1: Edge Rusher X is really bad.

Fan 2: Really? I think he’s a pretty good player.

Fan 1: Nah, dude had seven sacks and 60 tackles last year. Mediocre.

Fan 2: He seemed like he impacted plays a lot when I was watching...

Fan 1: Numbers don’t lie, man. He’s average at best. Just look at yesterday’s game. Not one sack.

Fan 2: But didn’t he cause a lot of pressure and...

Fan: I’ll say it again... numbers don’t lie. No sacks mean a bad game.

My name is MNchiefsfan, and this is the war on box score analysis. Welcome to the front lines.

First, let me be clear on something: numbers do have value, especially the more time that goes by and the more numbers you look at. I’m not talking about examining a player’s entire career or a three or four-year time span. The more numbers you get, the more likely you’re going to get some accuracy. And when you start looking at more in-depth numbers (which are becoming much more available the last few years), the value goes up in terms of analysis.

What I’m talking about is gauging a QB/RB/WR/TE/LB/DL/CB/S based on basic box scores over the course of a single game, or even multiple games. Quite simply, it’s a terrible way to judge a player.

In this article, we’re going to talk about edge rushers. You can find my podcast on the subject here.

The goal here is to do 3 things:

  1. Talk about the limitations of box score analysis (sacks and tackles) when looking at edge rushers, and what you miss when you do so.
  2. Try to figure out at least a couple of stats that are somewhat reliable and accessible, so people aren’t stuck using sacks (which are fine to use over the course of several seasons, but not at all for a few games. Even a full season is dicey) and tackles.
  3. Give a few quick tips on what you can look for during a broadcast viewing of a game (assuming you don’t feel like spending hours watching tape) to try and evaluate an edge rusher.

First, let’s talk about what you miss when you use sacks and tackles to gauge an individual game (or even multiple games). We’ll start with sacks.

The first problem with sacks is that the number in a box score does not differentiate between a sack that requires a good play from the defender and one that does not. For example, here is a play in which a sack is recorded, but not really because of anything the defender (Tanoh Kpassagnon) does right.

Essentially, what occurs here is Denver messes up its protection (or perhaps the quarterback should’ve been hot and wasn’t), and the right tackle is left blocking two guys.

Instead of taking one, he hesitates between both (the worst possible choice) and they both end up sprinting at the quarterback. He decides to try to escape right, which causes him to run into Kpassagnon first.

While that’s great for Kpassagnon statistically, he didn’t do anything here that literally any edge defender in the NFL (from starters to the last guy off the bench) couldn’t do 99 percent of the time. It would’ve been a bad play to not get a sack.

That’s no knock on him, it’s just a statement of fact: Kpassagnon didn’t have to beat a blocker or really chase down the quarterback, didn’t have to make a quick decision or tough read... he just had to sprint forward and and tackle a much less athletic QB who was already falling down.

Here’s a play that, on the stats sheet, is absolutely identical to the one above:

Here, Justin Houston is matched up one-on-one against the right tackle. He wins the battle for the edge with a stab-slap, completely destroying the tackle’s balance, then corners quickly to close on the quarterback instantly. It’s an extremely impressive play that wasn’t the result of scheme failure by the Patriots. It was just Houston destroying his blocker and finishing in a way that many edge rushers can’t.

Again, according to the box score, those plays are identical. Except they very obviously aren’t, and one is a significantly better football play than the other.

Another issue with counting sacks is that some non-sack plays are at times more impressive from a player analysis viewpoint than a play that actually ends in a sack. Re-watch the Kpassagnon sack again. Then watch this play.

This is a complete and total humiliation of the right tackle. Houston fakes him out inside, slaps his flailing hands away and hits Rivers as he throws. That causes the ball to sail, which leads to an interception.

If all you do is count sacks, you completely miss this highly impactful and impressive play. Further, you give more weight in player analysis to the Kpassagnon sack, where he did virtually nothing. In short, you’re ignoring all context in favor of trying to find a one-liner blurb to figure out who made a better play, and by doing so, you completely miss what actually happened.

There are a million other ways counting sacks is incomplete. It doesn’t take into account how long a quarterback held onto the ball, whether a defender had extra (or good) blockers, plays in which a player caused pressure and forced the quarterback to run into another defender, or virtually anything else. It just says, “You got the stat, so you made a good play,” when that might not be true at all.

To try and drive the point home (in case it hasn’t been with our handy videos), imagine the following play.:

A quarterback takes a snap from shotgun, with Edge Rusher A and Edge Rusher B both going after him. Edge Rusher A is up against a top-five tackle and draws a chip from the tight end, but fights through the chip and then uses a great stab-swipe to get around the edge quickly despite the extra attention. In the meantime, Edge Rusher B is stood up by his tackle, a bottom-five guy, and is stuck on the edge.

The quarterback sees the pressure coming from Edge Rusher A and takes the other direction. However, this causes him to run into his tackle who is engaged with Edge Rusher B and stumbles around the edge, right into Edge Rusher B’s arms.

If you’re counting sacks, Edge Rusher B made a good play there and Edge Rusher A was a non-factor. In reality, the opposite was true. An extreme example? Sure. But versions of that (and lesser versions) happen all the time, and until you have a big enough sample size for that to “even out,” you’re ignoring context by counting sacks.

Now let’s talk about tackles. I’ll try to keep this one brief, because the point is similar: much like sacks, not all tackles are created equal. Compare these plays back-to-back.

This is a tackle.

This is also a tackle.

The plays are so different that I’m not sure much of an explanation is needed, but here’s a brief one: in one play, Houston doesn’t do much that any edge player couldn’t do (get held a bit, tackle a guy who runs back to him). In the second play, Houston does something almost no edge defender could do: stonewalling Kelechi Osemele, then going around him to make the tackle. It’s an absolutely fantastic play.

But on paper, if all you’re doing is counting tackles, both of those were recorded identically as a solo tackle. You’re missing incredibly important information if you’re trying to evaluate Houston as a player when you allow yourself to think of those plays as similar.

Additionally, as you no doubt realize, a tackle for minus-2 yards is significantly more valuable (and often requires a superior play) than a tackle for five yards. But unfortunately, your standard box score doesn’t reveal which is which.

Another issue with counting tackles is that some truly exceptional plays, much like with sacks, don’t get recorded as a tackle. This is one of my all time favorite examples.

This play is unbelievable. It is absolutely exceptional. Matthews beats three blockers here and is absolutely the main reason the play gets stuffed for no gain. And he doesn’t even get a stat for it.

Edge setting is vital in run defense, and those who do it really well are markedly better players than those who do not. But quite often, that won’t show up on a stats sheet.

I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of all the scenarios counting sacks and tackles will fail to adequately analyze a player, but I think you get the idea. So now that we’ve identified the problem, what is the solution for someone who can’t spend hours watching all-22 and charting what players do?

Well, there are a few stats out there that I do like that are at least somewhat available: pressures, pressure rate and stuffs.

We all know at this point what a “pressure” is, though analytical sites track it differently (it naturally leads to subjectivity). Pressure rate is quite simply how often a rushing edge player got to the quarterback when he was trying to do so.

That helps you differentiate between guys who have similar pressure numbers. Maybe one guy rushed the quarterback an extra hundred times. On a per-snap basis, the other player was superior.

Stuffs (alongside tackles for loss) are a good way to try and differentiate between regular tackles and ones that are more impressive and impactful. Again, there’s some variance with regards to how different sites count “stuffs,” but it’s generally a solo tackle made within a yard or two of the line of scrimmage. A player who is high on tackles for loss and stuffs is quite likely a very good run defender, and it’s a much more reliable indicator than simply tracking tackles.

Of course, these numbers can be tough to find (though, generally, Pro Football Focus puts out stuff on Twitter pretty often, and other sites are beginning to put them up as well, like Sporting Charts and a few others) and can vary a bit, and even they can be limited in how much context they can provide. At the end of the day, the best way to gauge a player is to watch him and try to track what he does.

For edge rushers, there are a few things you can look for as a game progresses. Try to keep a count in your head of how many times you’ve noticed the edge rusher beat his blocker. This isn’t going to be very accurate if you aren’t watching him every play and charting, but it’s at least a ballpark guess.

However, the big thing to look for is what traits an edge rusher has. See how his hand-fighting looks (Is he able to get a blocker’s hands off him?). Look for burst off the line and strength to put a blocker back on his heels. Watch for a variety of moves used when rushing the passer. But I’d say the most important thing to watch for is the ability to “corner” towards the quarterback (often talked about as bend around the edge).

Against the run, check to see how often an edge rusher lets the running back get to the sideline without forcing him back inside towards other defenders. Is he able to hold his ground at the point of attack and control the blocker enough to flash his helmet to either “gap” (each side of the blocker) to mess with the runner’s head and force him to hesitate? Can he shed blockers once it’s time to make the tackle?

Those are just a few traits to watch out for, but they’re the most important ones in an edge defender from my point of view. Try to figure out if you’re seeing these traits consistently or only occasionally. Consistency is what separates good NFL players from average ones. They all will flash ability. Those who sustain are the ones you want.

Above all, look past the basic box score. Much like with quarterbacks, there’s a whole lot more going on than what that thing shows, and I’d hate for you to miss it.

The Chief in the North Podcast

You can find my podcast on this subject here. You can find the show on the player below, iTunes and Google Play.