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How Can the Cowboys Improve (Part 2)? Inner Linebacker Position

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Could the reuniting of these two Lions make the Linebacking Corps Elite?


To start this article I want to pay tribute to both Keith Brooking and Bradie James. Keith Brooking was one of the better linebackers of the early 00's and gave us a great 2009 season (the best Cowboys campaign in recent memory) before slowly starting to lose a step. Bradie James was a 4th Round Draft Pick by the Cowboys who developed into a solid MLB who was the tackling leader on this team for years. I feel especially bad for James because he started to lose a step in his late 20s and was never really recognized for his consistency and leadership nor did he ever reach the promised land with this team.

Even in their decline neither of them showed the slightest lack of class or resentment towards the younger players, and were still valuable leaders for the 2010 and 2011 Cowboys.

However, it is impossible for me to say with a clean conscience that James and Brooking were not part of the problem for the Dallas Cowboys defense in 2011. I want to explore some of this, while also looking ahead to Connor and Carter and give reasons for optimism for the 2012 season.

It was apparent that the Cowboys saw both the future in Sean Lee as well as the deterioration of the careers of both Brooking and James. We can see this very early on from the Cowboys mentality when in an August 30th article Tim MacMahon had this to say about Jason Garrett's philosophy:

If Sean Lee is better than Keith Brooking and/or Bradie James, that will be reflected by the snap totals. Captains don't get a pass.

"When you can create that environment and that message is sent throughout your team -- and it's not just a message, there are examples that run through the team -- I think that's a really good thing for everyone," Brooking said. "That's what pushes you, that's what makes you better.

"We're all human. Regardless of your mentality, your mindset, your approach, if you know something's been given to you, obviously your approach could be a little different as opposed to going out there and earning it every day and taking nothing for granted, ever, in everything that you do."

And we saw the reflected snap totals immediately in Week 1 against the Jets where Sean Lee saw 55 snaps and both Brooking and James less than 30 each. Unfortunately I do not have access to the statistics for all 16 NFL games because I don't have an account with PFF, however it is most certainly possible to extrapolate from these statistics (especially since PFF has mentioned several times that defensive snaps stayed relatively the same)

PFF actually tells us that Sean Lee had about 868 snaps and I'm going to guess both Brooking and James had about 550 snaps with the limited remaining snaps going to Bruce Carter, when he came back from the PUP list. Now PFF had an interesting idea when it came to snaps charting points per snap as a rating system to give the overall efficiency of a player.

I had a similar idea: why don't we chart the productivity of linebackers by their efficency in tackling. It was only after this brilliant idea that I discovered that PFF has already done most of the legwork for me. Disclaimer: there is really no sweet spot of how many tackles a team has and their best chance to win.

Too many tackles can actually be a bad thing especially by the wrong position group: I really don't want my safeties making a lot of tackles because if they are making so many that means many big plays are actually being given up by the defense and the safeties are having to clean up after the rest of the defense.

However in that same vein if we examine the philosophy of the 3-4 I think we can explain wanting to see as many tackles as possible from a 3-4 ILB. The point of the 3-4 is to have 3 defensive linemen clogging up the offensive line so that linebackers are free to wrap up the rushers and receivers. So, in that sense we want our linebackers to be making as many tackles as possible in order to limit the Yards after Catch of opposing players. Of course on the other hand, if our ILBs are making too many tackles then that means that too big a proportion of plays are being targeted at them, and they're probably not a strength of the defense.

It's a double-edged sword and one that we have to respect carefully if we want to truly understand the defense.You want your linebackers to be good enough that the offense doesn't target them, but also for them to get theirs and have lots of tackles so that other weaknesses aren't exploited. It's a question that I cannot solve with statistics, and one in which the science of film study will tell us a lot more about our situation than these stats. Of course PFF probably already has a stat to deal with this and I'm just missing it.

Regardless the Tackles per snap mechanic will help us rate the efficiency of a player in tackling. According to PFF Sean Lee was the 14th best linebacker in Tackles/Snap % as he had an 11.6% rate of tackling when he played. And the guy is an absolute workhorse logging 866 snaps in a sophomore season where he missed basically an entire game due to injury.

Interestingly enough, number 3 on the list is a name somewhat familiar to us Cowboys fans, and I assume will become much more familiar over the course of the season: Dan Connor. That's right, in 477 snaps Dan Connor logged 66 tackles good enough for a 13.8% Tackle/Snap rate. Neither Bradie James nor Keith Brooking were on this list, but again this is a list of the top 15 of every inner linebacker on every team, roughly 128 so it's not a big surprise that neither of these names were there.

So, how are we to use this stat to project what would be a great season for our linebacking corps? Well, a great year relies on at least two of our 3 projected contributors at the ILB to progress and I'm going to place my wagers on those two players being Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. I think Dan Connor will be a great addition to this team if he gives us 500 snaps. (For the sake of argument I'm going to assume that one ILB spot will have about 1100 snaps total which includes however many nickel snaps there will be and the other will have about 850) What would be even more of an aid would be him keeping his rate of tackling the same for 69 tackles over the course of the season

That will leave 1300 snaps among Lee, Carter and their backups, probably Lemon and one other. I believe that Lee will have about 900 snaps over the course of the season and hopefully will increase or maintain his tackling rate at about 12% for about 108 tackles over the course of the season.

Finally there is Carter who will get about 500 snaps both at the linebacker and nickel linebacker spot. Honestly I'm going to try to keep this prediction at a realist level because we know absolutely nothing about him. I would be thrilled if he tackled at a 8.9% rate for 44 tackles over the course of the season.

This gives the Big Three of the linebacking corps, about 221 tackles to the average amount of tackles for a team at about 950 or about 23% of our team's tackles. By comparison last year the Chicago Bears had about 969 tackles 260 of which came from their linebackers for about 27% of their team's tackles. In short this improvement would be nothing short of momentous. Last year. the ILBs for the Cowboys had 207 tackles of 979 or about 21% of the team's total tackles.

More importantly they would combined have an 11.6% tackle/snap% good enough for 14th place on the ILB tackling percentage chart. Our group would be good enough for a top 15 linebacker spot by this efficiency stat.

Note, however, that I did not stretch too much to find these numbers, assuming no development from Connor, little development from Lee, and an average tackling year from Carter the defense might actually have good tackling from their linebackers. The group might not yet be elite, but this would most definitely be an improvement and one way in which we could see real improvement from the defense this year.

Anything else would just be gravy.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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