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Reading the Defense - Week 1

  Posted 9/3 by Jene Bramel, Exclusive to Footballguys.com


RTD enters its third season as part of the FBG IDP rotation and we're as excited as ever to look beyond the box scores to find the best defensive fantasy talent. As always, we'll use a healthy balance of film study, scheme information, statistical analysis and gut feel to keep your IDP roster ahead of your competition. While our primary focus will be on fantasy leagues, there will always be a strong foundation of good old defensive football discussion in every column. And if you're a new subscriber and haven't seen all the good work our IDP staff has done this summer, make sure you check out this thread in the IDP Forum on our message board. Many of our preseason articles (Norton's Breaking Down Defenses, Rudnicki's breakdown of stadium stat crew impacts, our own Guide to Defensive Schemes and the collaborative article we wrote with Bob Magaw on Incorporating IDP Concepts will remain relevant year-round.

We'll get to some player-specific discussion later in the column, but, in our never-ending quest for rational statistical analysis that works in the ultimate team nature of 11-man defensive football, let's revisit a metric we introduced last season.

USING TACKLE OPPORTUNITY

During the first weeks of each new NFL season, newbie and veteran IDP owners alike are faced with the same tough questions. What do I do with my stud IDPs that aren't performing to expectations? Which IDPs who are off to blistering starts are safe to roster? Most owners consider how often a player's defense will be on the field when putting together their rank lists and draft boards. But many of those same owners ignore how much a player's defense was on the field when they see an unexpectedly good or bad box score line. Midway through the 2007 season, with so many expected IDP studs underperforming, we introduced a simple, workable metric to help determine which players' poor (or good) performance was likely opportunity related and which was not.

By totaling each team's rush attempts faced, pass completions allowed and sacks, we generated a simple measure of the "raw tackle opportunity" each team was providing its defenders. Presumably, a team with a significantly below average tackle opportunity provides less opportunity for its IDPs to make plays in the box score. If that team seems likely to move back toward a league average tackle opportunity per game, we should expect its IDPs to improve statistically in future weeks. Similarly, a team with a well above average tackle opportunity may be likely to regress to the mean, making those IDPs riding the wave of opportunity candidates to fall back into fantasy mediocrity.

The tackle opportunity metric wasn't introduced in the RTD column until Week 7, but will likely prove to be most helpful early in the season.

Using the tackle opportunity metric in context - i.e. considering the role scheme, surrounding cast and level of talent have in the early boxscores - we should be able to correctly decide which players can be safely released and which players should stay on your roster for their inevitable rebounds. We've used similar, more intuitive, methods to recommend holding players like Aaron Schobel and Kyle Vanden Bosch while preaching caution on others in prior seasons. This year, we'll also have the statistical argument on our side.

GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF THE LEAGUE'S UNOFFICIAL DEFENSIVE STATISTICS

In our offseason edition of RTD, while considering the significant league-wide drop in IDP value among defensive backs in 2007, we noted that the total number of passes defensed awarded to DBs had dropped nearly 10% and wondered whether it was a sign of things to come. After exchanging e-mails with Chris Hoeltge, the primary administrator of the NFL's statistical programs, we learned that the 2007 drop was no fluke. The NFL had actively worked to tighten up how the stadium statisticians were awarded passes defensed, sending a video to each team's stat crews in an effort to more uniformly and correctly record all unofficial defensive statistics (solo and assisted tackles, passes defensed).

If you're interested in a deeper treatment of how those stats changed and a summary of the video guidelines the NFL sent to its statistician crews, here's the article written after our e-mail exchange with Hoeltge. Hoeltge also shared his thoughts with us in a recent interview on The Audible. We discussed the nature of unofficial statistics, how the video has changed how stats are recorded and the process of bringing new defensive stats like quarterback hits and tackles for loss to the NFL.com gamebooks and statistical pages. If you're interested, here's the link to the full interview.

We'll continue to monitor the effects of those guidelines on the stat lines of the league's players, particularly its defensive backs, early this season.

STUNTS

Antwan Odom is back practicing with the Bengals this week and could play in Week 1 against Baltimore. Though we (as usual) never got a straight answer from Marvin Lewis about the extent of Odom's injury, he fell almost entirely off the radar for most of the summer. Odom will be an interesting case study this year. On one hand, Odom finished well into the top ten in quarterback pressures (sacks plus hits plus hurries) last season and was immediately installed at the pass rushing right end position after signing in Cincinnati. On the other hand, Odom struggled in an every-down role at times before flourishing alongside Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, players Odom will not have the luxury of playing with as a Bengal. The pressure numbers from 2007 are significant, however, and Odom should be watched very closely this season. Expect him to start slow as he recovers from the foot injury, but don't hesitate to roster him if he starts to show signs of life.

The Cardinals officially elevated free agent acquisition Travis LaBoy to the first team last weekend. LaBoy may not be as effective as Calvin Pace in the box scores, but he's worth a roster spot in big play leagues immediately.

The preseason hype on Chicago SS Brandon McGowan, which had been increasing exponentially with every passing preseason week, faded fast with the news that the Bears have installed Kevin Payne as an every-down safety. Payne has been inconsistent, but did enough during the preseason to bump McGowan out of the lineup yet again. Though McGowan has been nothing but productive in the box scores, the Bears have refused to leave him in the starting lineup if they have any other healthy options on the roster. McGowan moves back to a nickel role, patiently awaiting another injury to reemerge as a top IDP option.

The release of Buster Davis is good news for hopeful owners of Detroit LB Jordon Dizon. The Lions had noted recently that they were unlikely to keep three players at the MLB position, hinting that either Davis or Dizon would be moved to SLB if both stayed on the roster. Dizon may still be a year away from contributing as a starter, but the release of Davis suggests that the team feels Dizon could handle the job at some point in 2008.

The FBG collective has pushed Bengal defensive back Chinedum Ndukwe hard since late 2007. Injuries have kept Ndukwe from becoming the force we projected, but his teammate Marvin White looks like he's usurping that promising IDP value. White racked up tackles behind a suspect linebacking corps during the preseason despite missing numerous other chances going for big hits instead of wrapping up and making the play. He could be a surprisingly consistent play all season long.

If you're just joining us, you may have missed the news that Minnesota LB Chad Greenway has quietly been moved to the strong side. The move isn't a death sentence for Greenway's IDP value, since he remains a fixture in the Vikes' nickel package, but it limits the expected upside he had as a WLB on a team that should use a lot of Tampa-2 this season. With luck, Greenway could have Michael Boley or Derrick Johnson like value as an every-down backer on the strong side.

The safety situation in New York remains a mess. Michael Johnson and James Butler are still atop the depth chart, but this may become a four-headed monster that includes Kenny Phillips and Sammy Knight. When the dust eventually settles here, it won't be surprising to find that the two backups have the most value. Knight seems to defy time wherever he lands and Phillips should be every bit as effective as Gibril Wilson once was. Neither Johnson nor Butler have been consistent in coverage for Steve Spagnuolo, whose scheme requires that the safeties be in position to prevent big plays. It will be surprising if either are still getting the bulk of the snaps by midseason.

If you find yourself in a bind already in Week 1 in deeper leagues, check the midweek injury reports for the status of St. Louis LB Will Witherspoon. His groin injury may be worse than what has been reported and could cost him a game or two early in the season. Veteran backup Chris Draft makes a nice spot start if you're hurting for LB help.

We'll be back next week with a jumbo size RTD. Make sure to drop by our IDP Forum all week and Sunday mornings for the latest news and analysis. You'll also want to check out our weekly roundtable podcast on all things IDP on Wednesdays. You can download it directly from our FBG Podcast page or subscribe to The Audible on iTunes. And, as always, if you have a question you'd like to see broken down in this column, send it along to bramel@footballguys.com.