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Vontaze Burfict’s 2016 season from an analytic perspective

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The numbers... they tell you a lot. Let’s take a look at Vontaze Burfict’s 2016 season from an analytic perspective.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Cincy Jungle is the last place I would need to go to convince anyone that Vontaze Burfict is a great football player.

When my good friend Dadio McDuck came to me about reviving his series “The Numbers They Tell You A Lot” with a episode on Burfict, I was impartial at the idea. He’s no secret weapon to the Bengals’ success, his play is well documented and rightfully praised when it’s warranted. And more than anything, he plays a position where raw volume production doesn’t always correlate to effectiveness.

Off-ball linebackers, in the grand scheme of a defense, are tasked with the least amount of physical work. Line of scrimmage players have to work through collisions on every single snap and play the reactionary role while doing it. Cornerbacks have to matchup and run step-for-step with wide receivers on the vast majority of their snaps, and even those who get burned on a few plays per game can still produce a quality performance, because that’s how hard their job is. The free safety in a cover 1 or cover 3 scheme is the single most important player because of the amount of ground they are tasked with covering. Linebackers just have to work with what’s in front of them and stay in their gaps. Sure, one of them is in direct communication with the defensive coordinator and they make adjustments to their box; but their production is more the product of someone else’s work in front of them, all they have to do is simply be where they need to be and finish the job.

That is my belief about the nature of the position, but it doesn’t blind me from appreciating a player that proves to be effective in the more intricate aspects of the position. Last year, Burfict truly returned to the style of play that made him a Second Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl player back in 2013.

In the latest edition of The Numbers, They Tell You A Lot (TNTTYAL), I broke down Burfict’s 2016 season with the usage of production metrics and compared those numbers to other top linebackers, Luke Kuechly specifically:

The metrics discussed in the video primarily deal with snaps and solo tackle numbers. To start, I looked up every off ball linebacker who started a minimum of 10 games, and recorded a minimum of 70 solo tackles. Removing assisted tackles was a key component to finding the best data, which is why I went with solo tackles. Here is the data in full, sorted by number of solo tackles:

Off-Ball Linebackers with 10+ Starts and 70+ Solo Tackles

Name Team Starts Solo Tackles % Team Solo Tackles Snaps % Team Snaps Snaps Per 16 Starts Snaps Per Solo Tackle Solo Tackles 16 Starts NFL1000 Rank
Name Team Starts Solo Tackles % Team Solo Tackles Snaps % Team Snaps Snaps Per 16 Starts Snaps Per Solo Tackle Solo Tackles 16 Starts NFL1000 Rank
Kwon Alexander TB 16 108 15.38% 1023 96.33% 1023 9.47 108 34th ILB
Tahir Whitehair DET 15 99 14.73% 933 90.85% 995.20 9.42 105.60 59th ILB
Alec Ogletree LA 16 98 14.65% 1090 100.00% 1090 11.12 98 56th ILB
Telvin Smith JAX 16 98 14.43% 1048 97.40% 1048 10.69 98 5th 4-3 OLB
Zach Brown BUF 16 97 14.81% 977 91.22% 977 10.07 97 23rd ILB
Paul Posluszny JAX 16 97 14.29% 1057 98.23% 1057 10.90 97 14th ILB
Christian Kirksey CLE 16 93 14.53% 1111 99.82% 1111 11.95 93 32nd ILB
Sean Lee DAL 15 93 14.44% 973 92.40% 1037.87 10.46 99.20 4th 4-3 OLB
Zach Orr BAL 15 87 15.29% 961 91.79% 1025.07 11.05 92.80 20th ILB
Mason Foster WAS 13 87 12.68% 770 70.13% 947.69 8.85 107.08 41st ILB
Jerrell Freeman CHI 12 86 12.55% 806 74.98% 1074.67 9.37 114.67 3rd ILB
Malcolm Smith OAK 14 86 13.40% 933 89.03% 1066.29 10.85 98.29 38th 4-3 OLB
Bobby Wagner SEA 16 86 15.36% 1073 99.35% 1073 12.48 86 4th ILB
Benardrick McKinney HOU 16 79 13.72% 915 90.59% 915 11.58 79 9th ILB
Lawrence Timmons PIT 16 78 11.96% 950 90.82% 950 12.18 78 29th ILB
Preston Brown BUF 16 76 11.60% 1065 99.44% 1065 14.01 76 24th ILB
Deion Jones ATL 13 75 11.74% 897 80.74% 1104 11.96 92.31 8th ILB
Vontaze Burfict CIN 11 73 10.83% 674 62.01% 980.36 9.23 106.18 10th 4-3 OLB
Thomas Davis CAR 16 73 11.64% 1009 94.30% 1009 13.82 73 3rd 4-3 OLB
Avery Williamson TEN 16 73 11.46% 909 83.32% 909 12.45 73 28th ILB
Luke Kuechly CAR 10 71 11.32% 657 61.40% 1051.20 9.25 113.60 1st ILB
Derrick Johnson KC 13 70 10.22% 841 75.43% 1035.08 12.01 86.15 17th ILB
Eric Kendricks MIN 14 70 11.95% 869 83.96% 993.14 12.41 80 7th ILB
Craig Robertson NO 15 70 10.89% 970 92.40% 1034.67 13.86 74.67 32nd 4-3 OLB
K.J. Wright SEA 16 70 12.50% 1052 97.41% 1052 15.03 70 6th 4-3 OLB

As you could’ve guessed, Burfict ranked in the 20th percentile in Percentage of Team Solo Tackles (or solo tackle market share), Snaps and Percentage Team Snaps due to having only played 11 games. But it was his efficiency in terms of solo tackles that put him in the 80th percentile in Snaps Per Solo Tackle and Solo Tackles extrapolated over a full 16 game season at his Snaps Per 16 Games rate. Had Burfict started all 16 games last year, he would’ve ended up with about 106 solo tackles at his Snaps Per Solo Tackle Rate. That would’ve put him fifth in the league.

However, that wasn’t enough for me to say he was playing at a high level. I evaluated whether his tackles were high quality, in terms of yards allowed, and if they were made when the ball was being run at him or away from him, in addition to coverage tackles. In doing so, I charted every solo tackle he made from the middle linebacker spot, from an outside linebacker spot, when the ball was run toward him, away from him, and when he was in coverage. Then, I compared those numbers to a linebacker who played about the same amount of snaps and recorded roughly the same amount of production: Luke Kuechly.

Starting with run defense: (disclaimer - PD = play direction)

Burfict Run Tackles

Tackles PD = His Fit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB Tackles PD = Cleanup/Pursuit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB
Tackles PD = His Fit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB Tackles PD = Cleanup/Pursuit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB
21 3.05 12 9 20 4.6 14 6

Kuechly Run Tackles

Tackles PD = His Fit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB Tackles PD = Cleanup/Pursuit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB
Tackles PD = His Fit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB Tackles PD = Cleanup/Pursuit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB
19 2.58 19 0 24 3.42 20 4

Kuechly beats out Burfict in terms of Average Yards Allowed for both tackles made in their respective run fit/gap, and cleanup and pursuit tackles, but Burfict’s numbers are still admirable.

One important aspect to notice is the number of tackles where both players had to chase down the ball-carrier or cleanup the play. For both players, about half their tackles were made where the play was designed to run away from them, and they still made the stop and averaged relatively low yards allowed, considering they weren’t initially in the best position to make the stop. This is important because when the ball is run toward your gap, it’s expected you meet the ball-carrier and make the stop. When you can amass production outside of your assignment and make it quality production, that’s the sign of a plus run defender.

Just for an extra perspective, I also looked at coverage tackles for each player:

Burfict Coverage Tackles

Tackles PD = His Assignment Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB Tackles PD = Roaming/Pursuit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB
Tackles PD = His Assignment Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB Tackles PD = Roaming/Pursuit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB
25 7.68 19 6 9 9 6 3

Kuechly Coverage Tackles

Tackles PD = His Assignment Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB Tackles PD = Roaming/Pursuit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB
Tackles PD = His Assignment Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB Tackles PD = Roaming/Pursuit Average Yards Allowed As MIKE As OLB
19 6.79 18 1 18 12.06 13 5

You’ll see much of the same story. Kuechly barely edges out Burfict in Average Yards Allowed before the tackle, but there’s a bigger discrepancy in the number of times Burfict made the stop on his assignment, and the number of times he made the stop on someone else’s assignment. This could’ve been man or zone coverage. It was clear Burfict was being targeted more in coverage than Kuechly, but Burfict still held his own to some degree. Kuechly’s Average Yards Allowed on plays where he was in roaming coverage is high, but he made a few of those tackles when he was playing deep zone in prevent, so it’s naturally skewed.

This is a lot of data to take in, but the main conclusions are:

  • Burfict made a high number of solo tackles for playing such a low total number of snaps compared to other similar linebackers.
  • The quality of those tackles were right up there with the consensus best off-ball linebacker in the NFL.
  • Burfict didn’t just make those tackles when the ball was coming toward him. Teams tried to run away from him and he still made his presence known as a run defender.
  • Most of his production came when he was originally aligned as the middle linebacker.

Burfict fully participated in OTAs for the first time in three offseasons, is reportedly in much better shape than last offseason and is playing for his third contract in his sixth season in the league. He also won’t turn 27 until Week 3 of this year. To say we’re in for a special season from Burfict maybe a vast understatement.