So I have heard a lot of Phinsiders talking trash about our new free agent pickups last year in the middle of our defense. They want to site the number of tackles they "missed" and other stats that are in effect, made up stats. Do you want to know why the NFL doesn't count "missed tackles"? Simple- it is a purely opinion-driven stat. Its obvious when someone makes a tackle. But how do you judge when someone misses a tackle?
If you really think about it, every defensive player that doesn't make a tackle on any given play has in essense "missed" that tackle. But to what extent? Do you judge a Paul Soliai as a sure tackler, because if someone isn't running right at him, he will not even get close enough to call it a "missed tackle"? Do you unfairly criticize a player that at least got close enough to the play to miss because they did? And what if a player shoots a gap and their missed tackle still causes a RB to redirect and eventually get tackled for a loss because someone else gets to him?
Lets instead look at a stat that does matter- Tackles. There are two types of tackles that I like to look at: Total tackles and solo tackles. Total tackles are important because it shows how often you were in the right place to make a play. Solo tackles can not be underestimated, because a good number of the assists that are figured in there are tackles that you get credit for, because you fell on a pile. You still want to see assists though to a certain degree because it shows that you are hustling to the ball. What you want is a good mix of being in the right place, and solo tackles which show that the player knows how to tackle and his teammates trust him to make the tackle.
If you want to throw in tackles for loss, fine, but realize that tackles for a loss are usually a result of the defense winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. If your DTs are getting penetration, there will be more tackles behind the original line of scrimmage. If they are getting pushed back 3-5 yards there will be much less tackles behind the line of scrimmage, or the LBs will have to take lots of chances and result in some big plays on both sides of the ball.
Now there are 2 Plays in particular I want you to look at. The first is at about 2:30 in. Watch Paul Soliai and his contribution to the play. This is the kind of thing I saw out of him all season long. He is right around the ball, but for some reason or another he doesn't make the play. That is a critical down. He is the only one that can make the play before the first down marker that can make the play. This is a franchise player? Good luck with that guy Atlanta.
Philip Wheeler is in coverage but then comes up to make a play. He is no doubt charged with a missed tackle here, Brady goes down from fear of being hit right after that... so he did make the play. Meanwhile the crap that Soliai did on that play is lauded as "eating blockers", which, by the way is only one blocker. The play is slowed down, but you can see it takes almost 2 full seconds for him to even make contact with the defender that is blocking him, and then he promptly goes towards Brady, , can't get off the block to make a play, turns around and then falls. Below is the my first edited video on youtube!!
The 2nd is what I saw all too often last year on critical downs. When the game mattered it was apparent just how bad our D-line was. Now look at what happens to the line of scrimmage:
The RT leaves Cameron Wake unblocked and gets to Ellerbe on the 2nd level. It is obvious that he was not only hurt, but that the offense knew he was hurt, because otherwise you still have to block a guy like Cameron Wake even on the backside. The RG reach blocks(yes, this is a real thing) Paul Soliai which by the way is only a single block. Paul Soliai's lack of athleticism to get to the play has now cost us yet another player at the point of attack where we really need one allowing the Center and LG double team Jared Odrick and shove him into Philip Wheeler who is then at the goal line and too caught up in his own player's crap to make the play. You can throw an opposing player out of the way, but what do you do when it is your own player that is blocking you out of the play? The LT Nate Solder and the TE Michael Hoomanawanui blow up our rookie DE Dion Jordan. The play ends with Cameron Wake just standing there, Paul Soliai on the ground, Jared Odrick and Dion Jordan at the endzone after being double teamed, which means that we gave up 2 yards at the point of attack when the opposing team needed 2 yards, and everyone on the field knew it before the play even started.
Personally, I want my LBs to just make tackles. I want them to make tackles slightly behind the newly established line of scrimmage, which is constantly changing throughout a play as defenders are either pushing their guy back, or being pushed back themselves. I want to control where they make them based on the D-line re-establishing the line of scrimmage, not by taking ridiculous chances and causing a tackle for loss, followed by a huge run.
With that said then, lets look at our LBs. Philip Wheeler led the team in total tackles with 118. He was second only to Reshad Jones(84) with 83 solo tackles. Overall he has more tackles than MLB James Laurinaitis both in total tackles and solo tackles. Again, if you want to bring up tackles for loss, go and see who he had playing in front of him. Michael Brockers(2012 14th overall pick), Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Kendall Langford. In my opinion their D-line was better than ours particularly in the middle. I will also point out that Cameron Wake was not his usual self as he was battling injury all season. Did I mention that Laurinaitis also played Middle LB not OLB?
Danelle Ellerbe was not far behind with 101 total tackles and 70 solo tackles. Now... you want to replace both of them. But with who? A guy that played college football, made 108 total tackles on the college level with only 61 solo tackles? It is totally fair to say that the DTs he was playing in front of were manhandling almost every guy they lined up against. It is possible that this guy comes into the league and lights things up. But it is also possible that he is another in a long line of Alabama MLBs that are not anywhere near as good as they were in college, because of the talent they played around.
If you decide that you are sure that these guys can be replaced.. FINE. But you have to be sure.. otherwise you will be losing a total of 219 total tackles and 153 solo tackles from right smack in the middle of our defense. Keep in mind that these players are younger and cheaper than their counterparts that they replaced. If you look at just last season, Wheeler is a much better LB than Burnett ever was, and Ellerbe was a small step back, but not by much. The ceiling is high with both of these players, so I wouldn't just get rid of them. While I would agree that Ellerbe and Wheeler could both improve their tackling, it is not a question of lack of physical talent, or lack of instincts. There are much more important areas I would prefer to add a playmaker(offense in general, D-line) and see what happens with the guys we have. Give them one more year to show what they can or can't do.