June 29, 2011
Now that we've endeavored to put statistical value on the pass defense efforts of cornerbacks and safeties, it's time to take a good look at the most and least effective pass-defending linebackers. As with safeties, it's tough to separate scheme from effectiveness — there are linebackers who are tethered to the front and only roll back in desperation, and there are others who are used to dropping back. Additionally, you'll see defenses try to adjust to substitution issues against no-huddle offenses designed to spread coverages out, and in those cases, miscast linebackers will be asked to take the role that nickel cornerbacks or safeties should.
And as we did with safeties, we're using Football Outsiders' Stop Rate metrics. Stop Rate is a percentage that shows how often a defender kept an offense from making a successful play — success in this case is defined as gaining 45% of needed yardage on first down, 60% of needed yardage on second down, and 100% of needed yardage on third or fourth down.
Here are the five most effective and five most susceptible linebackers (at least 75 total plays and 25 minimum pass plays) when it comes to creating stops. Again, with the radical differences in responsibilities, this is less about who's 'best' and more about who's getting the job done in specific roles. Keep in mind also that pass plays aren't the same as targets — pass plays also include sacks and passes defensed. Tackles after the catch are covered with the 'pass tackles' metric in parentheses.
Highest Stop Rate (vs. pass)
Rolando McClain(notes), Oakland Raiders (65% passing Stop Rate, 31 pass plays, 5.3 passing yards per play, 1 interception, 6 passes defensed, 24 pass tackles, 13 tackle stops, 73% run Stop Rate)
More may have been expected of McClain than was produced in his rookie season, but with a very impressive front four taking care of business, he was able to back out and cover from the middle. McClain was especially impressive with his ability to double back and catch up to bigger receivers and tight ends in the open field. He's also adept at stealing a look, barging in, and blowing up a swing pass.
In Jacksonville's zone defenses, Smith is often asked to cover the strong-side seam -- any port in a storm when you have a disappointing safety duo. He's a quick and responsive player who's get a lot more name checks if he did his thing in a major market.
When the Cards bring a big blitz to the line and sell out their linebackers, it's often Lenon who's responsible for keeping things intact over the middle. He has great range from side to side and reads quarterbacks very well. Also a very solid run defender.
Burnett, Shaun Phillips(notes), and Eric Weddle(notes) kept San Diego's defense together last year. For Burnett, the challenge was to read the backs and tight ends and release into coverage as the Chargers' hybrid defenses attacked. He's a persistent pass defender who won't frequently lose his assignment no matter how long the play goes.
We've talked before about how underrated Anderson is, but with all his great efforts as a guy who can read a gap and plug a hole, he's even more unheralded in his ability to not only blow up quick passes, but to also break free from the line and chase receivers downfield. We'll keep hammering the point home — James Anderson is a player you should watch.
Lowest Stop Rate (vs. pass)
Houston's secondary was an unmitigated disaster in 2010, so this didn't help. Diles played different roles around Brian Cushing's(notes) suspension and this is a really good example of a scheme throwing bad numbers on a good player. Houston's vanilla zones allowed enemy quarterbacks to target underneath just around the markers, leaving abundant opportunities to keep drives going. Hopefully, Wade Phillips will do Diles and his teammates a few more favors.
One of the reasons you'll see teams using nickel defenses more than ever is that offenses are using multi-wide sets to splay coverages. Shanle's caught in the middle there — while the Saints play a lot of nickel, they'll also have Shanle out in the slot and flex, as well as running after backs out of the flat. He's a mobile defender, but the fit isn't always great from a pass-coverage perspective.
Three linebackers with some talent (especially Lofton); three linebackers that can get caught up in zone coverage and have opposing quarterbacks take advantage of specific spacing concepts. It's why you'll see some zone teams (especially when they're running nickel and have two 'backers on the field) run hi-lo concepts to take care of that middle-distance coverage.
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