This offseason, the Buffalo Bills have retooled a defense that was remarkably poor at doing damage in the backfield last year. New additions include enticing prospects such as Trent Murphy, Tremaine Edmunds, and Harrison Phillips. While we can’t yet know how these players will perform on the field, we can take a look at the 2017 season for an idea of which incumbents the Bills may want to build around when it comes to disrupting the backfield.
For the Bills, there’s plenty of opportunity for both the defensive line and linebackers to impact the backfield. As a result, we’ll look at numbers across a few position groups. The NFL (thanks for the data) tracks three distinct statistics for impacting the backfield, and we’ll use them all in this dive. Specifically, they are sacks, tackles for loss, and quarterback hits.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive dig, but rather a discussion-starter. For the sake of accessibility, only select players are included. Players that were omitted (Matt Milano, Rickey Hatley, Jerel Worthy) were not included due to low counts in the above stats. Other stats exist that could benefit the bigger picture, however. Feel free to debate and expand those in the comments.
The Raw Data
At this point it’s understood that there’ll be graphs in these types of articles, right? Excellent. This one has the added bonus of looking like a bunch of bomb pops, which I think is a nice touch.
Your sack leaders (red section of each bar) are all the way to the left, with Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson neck-and-neck. Kyle Williams and Lorenzo Alexander are next up in that metric. All things considered, Cedric Thornton and Ryan Davis did pretty well for themselves compared to the rest of the team. This chart accounts for 21 of the team’s 27 sacks last year.
I’m a huge fan of the concept of tackles for loss (white section). It might seem less glamorous, but dropping the running back behind the line of scrimmage nets the same result as a sack to me. For that stat, Jerry Hughes is the man to beat. It seems logical that these are pretty scheme-dependent. The linebackers listed all did quite well. Factoring in that there might be a natural benefit to linebackers over the linemen, Hughes stands out all the more.
Last up is the blue section, representing QB hits. These aren’t the penalty variety, so that leaves near sacks and hits while passing. Overall, it’s safe to say hits had an effect on the play. Lorenzo Alexander looks pretty disruptive by this measure, compared to his teammates. He’s followed by Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams which isn’t exactly surprising.
When looking at all backfield impact plays, it’s pretty obvious who stands out. Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander are tops on the team. Kyle Williams remains the most disruptive defensive tackle and it’s not even close.
Backfield Disruption Efficiency
The only major adjustment to the data we’ll dive into is to account for playing time. Shaq Lawson was injured and had fewer snaps to create these kinds of plays, after all. It’s not really fair to have a heads-up competition. On the flip side, “every-down Brown” had more opportunities than anyone else on the list. Will that change things? Here’s another graphic to find out.
To avoid having to explain a lot of numbers with absurd decimal values, I’ve “inverted” the idea of efficiency here, so low is good. This chart shows how many snaps on average you could expect “between” the types of plays we’re examining for each player. For Adolphus Washington, for example, one out of every 72 snaps resulted in a backfield disruption as measured above.
This is pretty straightforward. Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes lead the way. Alexander edges out Hughes by about a half-snap. Lawson shakes out quite well at a glance. To toss numbers in, Lawson comes in with one play every 33 snaps, compared to 27 for Hughes and a bit over 26 for Alexander. Davis and Thornton are right behind Lawson with 35, and Eddie Yarbrough falls in at 38.
Yeah, but stats are for losers
The above is a great conversation starter, but it can’t capture the full story, so let’s add some context. There’s plenty of factors that make this more complicated.
While Lawson and Hughes look pretty similar at defensive end, from doing all-22 reviews, it’s the observation of this author that Hughes was double-teamed far more often than Lawson was. If you trust me on that point, then the gap of 6 snaps in efficiency actually suggests they’re much farther apart in talent than stats suggest. Additionally, Lawson is closer to the second-string players than he is to Hughes by these measures.
Preston Brown looks downright awful. Due to his durability and position, though, there’s really no one to compare him to. Brown’s “inefficiency” could be in large part due to scheme. Similarly, Alexander and Humber weren’t really being asked to do the same things, so comparing them isn’t clean. If you recall from an earlier data dive, Leonard Johnson stepped in for Alexander quite a bit in the second half of the year to emphasize nickel packages. That would naturally decrease Alexander’s snap counts for passing downs, which would increase how often he’s asked to keep the play in front, which he did well.