Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz put together a very interesting piece on broken tackles for ESPN. The focus is on which players and teams allowed the most and least broken tackles last season, and it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that there are a few Lions on the individual worst lists.
Before we get to that, let's take a look at Football Outsiders' definition of a broken tackle.
We defined a "broken tackle" as one of two events: Either the ball carrier escapes from the grasp of the defender, or the defender is in good position for a tackle but the ball carrier jukes him out of his shoes. If the ball carrier sped by a slow defender who dived and missed, that didn't count as a broken tackle.
DeAndre Levy, Larry Foote, and Marvin White were recognized on the league-wide lists for having a high broken-tackle rate (broken tackles allowed / [solo tackles + broken tackles allowed]). For example, Levy allowed 12 broken tackles during the 2009 season and only made 61 solo tackles. The 12 allowed broken tackles number was tied for the seventh-most in the league. Foote allowed 11, putting him right behind Levy, and White allowed 10. (Side note: Keith Bulluck also allowed 11.)On the worst linebackers list, Levy had a broken-tackle rate of 16.4% (fourth-worst) and Foote's was 13.8% (sixth-worst). White's broken-tackle rate was 19.8%, the fourth-worst percentage on the DBs list. (Philadelphia's Asante Samuel was at the top of the worst DBs list with a number of 26.6%.)
The broken-tackle rate number is definitely the most telling out of all these statistics. As the write-up suggests, this gives the numbers some context. The example they used was DeMeco Ryans, the Texans' middle linebacker. While Ryans did allow 12 broken tackles last year, he is not on the worst LBs list for broken-tackle rate, meaning his overall percentage wasn't that bad. It wasn't great, especially not compared to someone like Patrick Willis, who had 114 tackles and only allowed 4 broken tackles. Still, Ryans' numbers weren't bad all things considered.
ESPN's Kevin Seifert got the numbers for the NFC North and shared them in a recent post. Once again, it should come as no surprise that the Lions are at the bottom of some of the lists included in the post. For example, the Lions not only had the worst broken-tackle rate in the NFC North, but their number was actually the worst in all of the NFL. Also, out of the ten players in the NFC North that allowed the most broken tackles, six played for the Lions (DeAndre Levy - 12, Larry Foote - 11, William James - 11, Louis Delmas - 10, Marvin White - 10, and Ernie Sims - 8).
There were a few positives to come out of these numbers. One is that the Lions were second in the NFC North in creating broken tackles on offense. That may not say much considering the Lions were only 25th-best in the NFL, but at least they weren't last like Chicago and Green Bay, which brought up the rear on the league-wide list. (Minnesota was second, by the way.)
On the individual list of players with the most broken tackles, Kevin Smith and Calvin Johnson made the list with 14 and 10, respectively. The list is filled with Vikings players, which is why it's no surprise that they had the second-most broken tackles in all of the NFL. Adrian Peterson had 56 last season, doubling the number of the next-closest player (Matt Forte). In all, the Vikings accounted for half of the top ten on the broken tackles list (Peterson, Percy Harvin, Chester Taylor, Bernard Berrian, and Sidney Rice).
While these stats can be interpreted differently based on the context of how many opportunities a player has to actually make a tackle, the fact that so many Lions players stand out for missing tackles is no surprise. In fact, it's really confirmation of what we see during games -- lots of missed tackles. One of the Lions' biggest issues over the years has been allowing opposing players to break tackles, and although Jim Schwartz and company are doing their best to fix this, it definitely is going to take time.
As much as we complain about bad coverage leading to big plays or a lack of pressure giving opposing QBs too much time, the fact of the matter is that when the Lions have a chance to end a play, they have to do it. When opponents break tackles, it gives them second and sometimes third chances at turning an average gain into something big. Even worse, sometimes it gives opponents the chance to turn a loss into a gain. I'm sure all of us can think back to plays just from last season where it looked like the Lions had a guy wrapped up for a loss and then suddenly he was down the field for a big run. Against someone like Adrian Peterson it is expected that the defense will have a tough time bringing the runner down, but the Lions have to improve their tackling as a whole. If that means still allowing Peterson to break a few tackles, then fine. In general, though, the Lions have to become a team that makes plays on first contact, not second or third.