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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

2007 Linebacker Performance

I hate to dwell too much on the 2007 season, but I have the data and feel I might as well not ignore it. Today, I give you my assessment of the play of the linebackers using a multitude of statistics only available via a closer look at play-by-play data from the previous season.

First off, let’s not forget the accolades that were thrust upon the Husker linebacker corps heading into the season. The unit was ranked by one site as the 7th best linebacking unit in the country.
“It's more of a star-studded corps than it might get credit for on a national level. Bo Ruud and Corey McKeon will get all-star honors, while Steve Octavien has top 100 draft pick potential. As good as everyone is, there has to be more forced turnovers and more big plays against the run. Those will come.”
The turnovers and big plays against the run never came. In fact, the linebackers looked downright helpless against the run and certainly never met the expectations of any of us in 2007.

Now let's take a look at the actual numbers. For my analysis, I went a step beyond what you'll generally find in the boxscore or final statistics. I have included a set of statistics utilized by the guys at Football Outsiders in their work with the NFL. They employ a couple of interesting variables to examine the play of defensive players.

The first two are explained here:

Plays: Defined as the total defensive plays made, including tackles, pass deflections, interceptions, fumbles forced and fumble recoveries. These numbers come from official play-by-play reports and DOES NOT include special teams tackles or statistics.

TmPct: Refers to the percentage of team plays involving this defender. The sum of the percentages of team plays for all defenders on a given team will exceed 100%, primarily due to shared tackles. And here is a chart indicating the performance of Nebraska's linebackers on these two statistics. This is the type of analysis that can only be found at DXP.

Defensive Plays

Player TacklesPasses Def.INTsFFFR Plays TmPct
Steve Octavien863000 899.89
Corey McKeon7026101 78 8.67
Bo Ruud503210 566.22
Lance Brandenburgh490000 495.44
Phillip Dillard372000 394.33
Tyler Wortman70000 70.78
Major Culbert60000 60.67
Nick Covey50000 50.56
Latravis Washington30000 30.33
Blake Lawrence20000 20.22

You immediately notice that Steve Octavien was our most valuable linebacker in 2007. His 86 tackles puts him way out in front in terms of Plays. Behind him, we see the much maligned Corey McKeon putting up some decent numbers. Unfortunately, there isn’t a variable for missed plays, and let’s just note that it was McKeon’s six pass deflections that help make his numbers respectable. After the top two we see quite a drop-off with Bo Ruud and Lance Brandenburgh putting up similar numbers with quite a discrepancy in playing time. That’s why Brandenburgh became a crowd favorite, and also why his wasted redshirt in 2004 stings so much this year. Phillip Dillard is the best of the linebackers who will return in 2008. But note the efforts of Tyler Wortman, perhaps his ascension to a starting role this spring isn’t that surprising given his placement in this list.

The next three statistics take into account situational variables and determine a defensive player's ability to keep teams from moving the chains.

Stops: The total number of plays made by a defender that prevent a "success" by the offense. A successful play occurs when the offense obtains 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% on second down, 100% on third or fourth down. Therefore, a stop prevents one of these successes from occurring.

Defeats: The total number of plays made by a defender that stop the offense from gaining first down yardage on third or fourth down, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or result in a fumble (regardless of which team recovers) or interception.

Stop Rate: Refers to the percentage of all of a defenders Plays that are Stops.

Stops and Defeats

Player StopsDefeatsStop Rate
Steve Octavien351639%
Corey McKeon341144%
Bo Ruud17930%
Lance Brandenburgh17135%
Phillip Dillard17344%
Tyler Wortman3243%
Major Culbert2033%
Nick Covey2240%
Blake Lawrence1050%
Latravis Washington000%

The order of the players is essentially the same as those from the Plays category. Octavien leads the way in both Stops and Defeats further highlighting his status as our most impressive linebacker a year ago. I like the Stop Rate variable as it seems to be indicative of a linebacker’s ability to make plays when the offense is looking to move the chains. Toward that end, McKeon and Dillard stood out in 2007. I’m happy to see Dillard there, and expect him to continue that trend next season. You’ll also notice the success that Wortman again had those his sample size is relatively small.

The final area to examine are the linebacker’s sack numbers from 2007.


Player Sacks
Steve Octavien 2
Corey McKeon 1

Again the complete dearth of sacks is troubling. Three sacks from a senior-laden linebacking corps is downright disgusting. When you look at the percentage of sacks the LBs accounted for, you find they combined for 3/13 (or 23%)of the team's total sacks. That was actually an increase from the 17% of total sacks they accounted for in 2006. The percentage of a team's sacks that are accounted for by linebackers or DBs can be used as a crude measure of a team's blitz tendencies. At LSU in 2007, Bo Pelini's LBs and secondary accounted for 12.5 of the team's 37 sacks (33.8%). In 2003 at Nebraska the LBs and DBs accounted for 19 of the team's 27 sacks (70.4%). That linebacking corps alone led by Demarrio Williams accounted for 55% of Nebraska's sacks. So, in other words, we should see the LBs sack totals increase in 2008.

2008 Outlook

Unlike the front four, Nebraska will be replacing starters at all three linebacker positions. That being said, most everyone expects an upgrade over the 2007 unit. Phillip Dillard should anchor the corps from his MLB spot. He’s lost some weight, which is huge., especially if Pelini plans on utilizing much Cover-2 in 2008. In that coverage scheme Dillard will be counted on to cover a lot of ground. At the conclusion of spring practices Tyler Wortman and Cody Glenn were your starters at the two OLB spots. After digging through these statistics, Wortman seems like less of a surprise, but it will interesting to see if he can hold off challenges from Blake Lawrence or Latravis Washington. Cody Glenn is intriguing. While it’s a bit troubling that he climbed the depth chart so quickly, it appears he will contribute at some level in 2008. Overall, I expect a vast change in the style of linebacking that we see next season. Pelini’s backers are always active and make offensive linemen work to account for their presence of every single play. We should see far fewer plays where all three linebackers wind up on their backsides, or tangled up with blockers at the point of attack. Pelini will also turn the guys loose blitzing regardless of the down and distance.