So what makes a great NFL linebacker?
If your answer to that question is the number of tackles he registers, then James Anderson of the Carolina Panthers has been one of the best linebackers in the NFL over the past two seasons. With data taken from pro-football -reference.com (data here), Anderson's 270 combined tackles (solos plus assists) in 2010 and 2011 is sixth most in the league.
So does that make James Anderson a great linebacker?
Throughout the 2011 season I analyzed each Panthers game looking for the "hidden plays" (tip of the cap to Gregg Easterbrook, the TMQ) that have a big impact on the game but do not show up in the box score or on Sports Center.
Here is my analysis of the key hidden plays from James Anderson's 2011 campaign:
The Good - James Anderson, 2011
Week 7: In a win against the Washington Redskins, the Panthers led 9-6 in the third quarter. The Redskins faced a 4th-and-2 and were out of field goal range so they went for the first down. James Anderson burst through the line and sacked quarterback John Beck for a 7 yard loss, giving the Panthers the ball near midfield, helping the Panthers to a victory.
Week 15: In a 28-13 victory against the Houston Texans, James Anderson came up with a big fourth quarter interception in the end zone. The Texans were inside the Panthers 10 yard line, so Anderson's interception took points off the board for Houston, helping to seal the Panthers victory.
The Bad - James Anderson , 2011
Week 6: In a loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the score was tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter as Atlanta faced a big 3rd-and-6. Anderson tried to jam Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, lost his footing, and allowed Gonzalez to pick up 10-yards and a first down, extending a drive that gave Atlanta the go-ahead touchdown.
Week 8: Covering the tight end was an issue again in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Late in the third quarter the Panthers led 21-14. Minnesota had the ball, facing a 3rd-and-10. James Anderson dropped into zone coverage and gave Visanthe Shiancoe just enough space to pick up a first down, extending a drive that produced a game-tying touchdown five plays later.
Week 14: In the late-seaons loss to the Atlanta Falcons, James Anderson once again blew his coverage assignment. With 9:03 left in the third quarter the Panthers led 23-10. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back to pass as James Anderson ended up in man coverage on running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Rodgers ran a wheel route, leaving Anderson in the dust and catching a 31-yard touchdown pass (grainy video here). The play cut the Panthers lead to six points, and Carolina ultimately lost the game.
Week 17: The loss to the New Orleans Saints was brutal to James Anderson. In the first quarter he was burned for a TD pass to Marques Colston (3:27 mark here). Then, in the third quarter, the exact same thing happened when Anderson gave up a touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham (1:17 mark here).
James Anderson - The Summary
Yes, James Anderson has been among the NFL's best tacklers over the last two years. However, as shown above, his coverage can be very suspect at times.
Being a great linebacker requires more than just tackles.
Hopefully, James Anderson will improve his pass coverage in 2012, enabling this good Panthers linebacker to become a great one.
Andrew Sweat is a die-hard Panthers fan. For more from this author, visit Andrew's archive or check these out articles: