Is Lovie Smith responsible for the Texans ranking eighth in forced fumbles and 17th in fumble recoveries in 2021?
The 2021 Houston Texans defense marginally improved as Smith took over the reins from rookie defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver. Playing a simple, fast and “bend but don’t break” style of defense, Smith’s unit was heavily dependent on forcing turnovers to slow down offenses.
Forcing turnovers has an immense impact on the outcome of a game. A 2013 study concluded that teams with more interceptions than their opponent won the game 80% of the time and teams that forced and recovered more fumbles than their opponents won the game 70% of the time.
For a Texans unit that is still lacking in elite talent, they may continue to live or die by the amount of takeaways they generate. This is the second piece in a three-part series intending to discover what exactly Smith has done to improve the units’ takeaways and determine if they are sustainable going forward.
The first piece examined the Texans 17 interceptions (eighth most in NFL) and concluded that Smith’s schematics were responsible for just three interceptions all season.
Evidence was also found pointing towards Houston not being able to sustain their impressive interceptions, unless the coaching staff adapts and gets out of their comfort zone.
The next category of takeaways to analyze are fumbles, which can be even more volatile and difficult to predict than interceptions. That being said, interesting patterns emerge when analyzing specific defenses, similar to the style Smith has the Texans running.
The anatomy of fumbles
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Houston forced 16 fumbles in 2021, good for a top 10 ranking at eighth place in the NFL. However, Houston recovered just eight fumbles, a fairly average ranking that places them at 17th in the league.
This means Houston’s “fumble recovery percentage” — a statistic manually calculated by dividing fumbles recovered (eight) by fumbles forced (16) — is 50% which ranks only 27th in the NFL.
This lowly bottom five ranking may actually bode well for the 2022 Texans season. Since recovering fumbles is largely a luck induced outcome, there is high volatility year-over-year and a bottom five ranking could easily swing to a top five ranking, in theory, averaging out to the median over a larger sample size.
This means that after a year of bad luck in recovering fumbles, it’s more likely that the Texans pick up more footballs off the ground in 2022, than they did in 2021.
If the Texans can continue to force fumbles at a top 10 rate — a fate decided later in this article — their “fumble recovery percentage” could have positive regression to the mean and increase in 2022.
The other hypothesis offered is based less around analytics and more around general football theory. To recover a fumble, a player needs to be in close proximity to the football, to actually pick it up. Thus, defenses that recover more fumbles tend to have their players closer to the ball.
Furthermore, the best NFL defenses thrive because they are able to get their defenders in the backfield, have them tighter in coverage and thus, put simply, be closer to the ball.
To test this theory, a comparison of “fumble recovery percentage” and points allowed per game (PAPG) for all 32 NFL teams is conducted. The evidence supports that some of the best teams at recovering fumbles are also among the best teams at minimizing points.
Of the top 10 teams in “fumble recovery percentage”, five of them are also in the top 10 in points allowed per game (Denver, Buffalo, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay) while all but two defenses (Detroit and Washington) are in the top half of the league in points allowed per game.
Sure, points allowed per game isn’t the best stat to measure the talent and success of a defense. Executing the same comparison using Football Outsider’s defensive DVOA, yields similar but slightly less conclusive trends.
Of the top 10 teams in “fumble recovery percentage”, four of them are also in the top 10 in defensive DVOA (Buffalo, Indianapolis, Miami and Tampa Bay), but the other six are all in the bottom half of the league.
It’s difficult to make conclusions from these stats alone but trends can emerge which point us in the right direction regarding information useful for the Texans.
What’s interesting about the three teams that appear in the top 10 in “fumble recovery percentage,” points allowed per game AND defensive DVOA (Buffalo, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay) is that the Bills and Colts utilize a 4-3 base defense like the Texans and all three defenses pride themselves on playing fast.
Most importantly, the Bills and Colts respective defensive coordinators in 2021 — Leslie Frazier and Matt Eberflus — are both Tony Dungy disciples. The Super Bowl champion coach is famous for pioneering the Tampa 2 defense and we know Texans’ Smith is another Dungy/Tampa 2 believer.
The Tony Dungy defense
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Is there a technique or philosophy that Dungy disciples teach their defenses which results in increased fumbles? While there is next-to-no previous literature defining a specific technique that his entire coaching tree has adopted, a philosophy that has been mirrored; however, is actually about player personnel.
Dungy defenses prioritize athleticism at every position, especially the front seven. Dungy was ahead of his time by prioritizing quick linebackers who can race to the football and tackle ball carriers, while being willing to sacrifice size and bulk compared to the stereotypical “old-school” linebacker.
The Bills’ starting linebackers fit the bill, with Tremaine Edmunds running a 4.54 40 yard dash (89th percentile). Additionally, Matt Milano, albeit only running a 4.67 40-yard dash, is a smaller and lighter linebacker at 6-0, 223 pounds.
The Colts follow suit even closer to Dungy’s beliefs, with Darius Leonard measuring in at just 6-2, 234 pounds and playing much faster than his listed 4.70 40-yard dash. His running mate, Bobby Okereke is even smaller at 6-1, 239 pounds and was clocked at an impressive 4.58 40-yard dash (83rd percentile).
Finally, Smith brought these Dungy-style linebackers to Houston in his first year as DC. Starting MIKE, Christian Kirksey, is listed at 6-2, 235 pounds, much smaller than the old-school MIKE linebacker who was around 6-4, 255-plus pounds.
Kirksey had a resurgent year, at least in the box score, finishing with 93 tackles (third-highest in career), six tackles for loss (second-highest in career) and eight pass breakups (a career high).
Additionally, Smith was finally able to make Kamu Grugier-Hill play like a solid starter in his sixth year in the NFL. Grugier-Hill measures in at 6-2, 230 pounds and ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at his pro day. He led the Texans in both tackles with 108 and TFLs with 13 — both were career highs.
Look to how the Texans have drafted and it furthers Smith’s desire for Dungy linebackers. 2021 fifth-round pick, Garrett Wallow measured in at 6-1, 220 pounds and 2022 third-round pick, Christian Harris measured in at 6-0, 226 pounds, while running a blazing 4.44 40-yard dash (97th percentile).
Kirksey and Grugier-Hill combined for 201 tackles, plus forced two fumbles and recovered two fumbles in 2021. This furthers the theory that defenses who can get their players closer to the ball can rack up more tackles and can force plus recover more fumbles. Having lighter, faster linebackers helps big time in that regard — see Leonard’s NFL leading eight forced fumbles.
Defense-wide tackling stats back up this theory even more, particularly among the Colts and Bills, who were both in the top 10 in total tackles in 2021. The Bills ranked fourth and the Colts ranked ninth in total tackles with Leonard and Okereke combining for 254 and Edmunds and Milano tallying 194.
This is an imperfect testament but a testament nonetheless to these defenses’ ability to keep everything in front of them and limit big plays or missed tackles — more Dungy principles.
The Texans; however, are on the other end of the spectrum, as they ranked 26th in total tackles in 2021. It’s quite impressive then that they managed to force the eighth most fumbles in the NFL.
On 1,144 total tackles, they forced 16 fumbles, good for a “forced fumble percentage” — manually calculated by dividing forced fumbles by total tackles — of 1.4% (eighth in NFL).
How did the Texans do it?
(AP Photo/Justin Rex)
The next question is whether the Texans have forced fumbles at the eighth highest rate due to dumb luck, poor ball security by opposing offenses, or wily technique taught by Smith.
If the answer is one or both of the first two possibilities, one shouldn’t expect Houston to sustain their fumbles in the future. Conversely, if it is indeed due to Smith’s coaching/philosophy, then the Texans may have something.
While lighter and faster linebacker personnel played a part in the Texans top 10 forced fumble ranking, their linebacker group was outpaced by the secondary and the defensive line. Houston’s defensive backs forced seven fumbles, their defensive line forced six and the linebackers forced three.
While the measurements Dungy disciples prioritized with their linebackers hold value, it seems a technique that can be taught to the entire defense is an important factor, too. So, what tackling technique could differentiate a seemingly “normal” tackle from one that has a higher probability of forcing a fumble?
For a fumble to occur, the football needs to leave the hands of the ball carrier. Thus, a defender specifically targeting the ball with a punch or strip, is an important distinction from a typical wrap-up tackle where defenders essentially hug the ball carrier around the waist and do not play the ball.
Let’s put that belief into action now. Via personal tracking of the 16 fumbles Houston forced in 2021, 12 of them (75%) came from defenders directly playing the ball via a well-placed strip or punch.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Was Lovie Smith responsible for helping the Texans force the eighth most fumbles in the NFL, recover the 17th and can they sustain that pace in 2022?
The 2021 Colts’ and Bills’ defenses led by Tony Dungy disciples prioritized playing fast and having athletic personnel which provided more opportunities for defenders to be closer to the ball. This led to more tackles, more forced fumbles and more recovered fumbles.
Smith took these principles and added another layer, teaching his players to constantly target the ball when making a tackle, rather than simply being content with wrapping up.
Interestingly, the Texans ranked sixth in the NFL in missed tackles, perhaps an indicator that attempting to strip the ball has its repercussions. The Colts, ranked 4th, which provides more evidence to that theory.
Nonetheless, unlike in the first part of this series, discussing the Texans interceptions, there is a tangible technique and philosophy that Smith has brought to Houston which created a positive overall benefit in 2021.
As Smith enters year two of commanding the Texans defense and year one of the entire team, his teachings to play the ball should carry even more weight. By all reports, Texans players are buying into Smith’s leadership and culture.
On the positive side, we could see an improvement in the Texans 17th placed ranking in fumbles recovered and 27th placed ranking in “fumble recovery percentage” because 88% of the fumbles recovered in 2021 were from current Texans and the team has added more talent on the defensive line and with a widely-applauded 2022 draft class.
Additionally, this estimated slight and arbitrary increase to say 15th in fumbles recovered and 24th in “fumble recovery percentage” could also be aided by natural positive regression.
This is substantiated because, out of the eight fumbles Houston forced but could not recover, two bounced out of bounds and the other six bounced through or past two-plus Texans defenders’ legs, via personal tracking.
These are unlucky situations that are unlikely to be repeated at a high rate, thus helping Houston positively regress to the mean in the future.
There should be a slight drop off from the 8th most forced fumbles to maybe 12th-16th. This is because 56% of the forced fumbles in 2021 came from Texans no longer on the roster.
A cautious prediction would state that Houston declines slightly in forced fumbles and improves slightly in recovered fumbles, evening out to be around league average in both statistics.
This means in totality, Houston would be able to sustain the expected points added via fumbles as although they may be forcing less, they would be recovering more. Taking potential points off the board and providing more possessions for the offense could be the biggest aid to Davis Mills and the offense.