Examining Barrett Ruud's 2009 season using Football Outsiders' advanced statistics

As some of you know, I've been recently added to Bucs Nation as a writer, so I'd like to thank Buc Wild and Craig T for bringing me on board. Some of you may know me from the community here, but if not you'll get a good taste of the kind of writing I'll bring to the site in this post. I'll do my best to contribute regular and quality articles to the community. If you have anything to say about this post, whether it be style, spelling, grammar, content or jokes please do so. I encourage any criticism, because it can only improve the level of my writing and hence the quality of Bucs Nation. Having said that, let's get on to the subject!

 

Many players on the current Buccaneers roster are the subject of plenty controversy: Michael Clayton for dropping balls, Sabby Piscitelli for whiffing on tackles and coverage and Jeremy Trueblood for his penalties. But Barrett Ruud seems to split the community like no other player: while some think he's a horrible linebacker who can't shed a block and will only make tackles 8 yards downfield, others think he's a great player whose stats suffered because of poor D-line play. 

Barrett Ruud's regular 2009 statistics look impressive: 142 tackles, tied for second with London Fletcher and behind Patrick Willis for the most tackles in 2009. Some of that is due to the poor play around him, which means he's often the first one to actually tackle opposing players. However, that's not all of it: Ruud has great range and diagnoses the play very well. According to Football Outsiders he was in on 19% of all Bucs defensive plays in 2008, which was the highest percentage of any player in the league. In 2009 he was in on 18% of all plays, which was 7th highest in the league. Whatever his 2009 faults were, he was good at getting to the ball before the play was over.

Another thing that few people will dispute: Ruud is great in coverage. He can run down the seam with most tight ends in the league and has a good feel for the underneath passing game. He doesn't show up much in the passing stats, but that can be attributed to teams throwing less to his area of the field. Of course, any MLB will still have to rely on safety help over the top, and we were woefully lacking last year in that aspect, at least when Sabby was the relevant safety.

Those aspects of his play are the least controversial, but the one aspect that has this fanbase divided on Ruud is his play against the run. In an attempt to resolve this, I'll take a look at Ruud's advanced statistics in the run game and what they say about his play last year after the jump. 

The key statistic in what I'm about to examine is Stop Rate. Football Outsiders defines a Stop as any play that prevents the opposing team from gaining sufficient yardage. Sufficient yardage in this context is defined as 45% of yardage needed for a new first down on first down, 60% of those needed yards on second down, and 100% of the yardage on third down. In other words, a stop occurs when a player makes a play that prevents the opposing team from increasing the likelihood they'll gain a first down. Stop Rate is simply the percentage of plays made by the player that were stops. This statistic not only incorporates the number of tackles a player makes, but also the contribution of the tackles to the defense. It's certainly not a perfect statistic, and it still doesn't account for poor D-line play, but it's a start. So, let's take a look at those stats:

 

Name (Team) Total Plays Stops Yards per Play allowed Stop Rate Total Run Plays Stops in Run Game Rush Yards per Play allowed Stop Rate in Run Game
Barrett Ruud(TB) 150 78 5.4 52% 111 63 4.7 57%

Now, these stats don't really tell us much out of context. Is a 57% stop rate against the run good or bad? We can't tell without looking at the rest of the league. To do that, I'll took a look at all 4-3 MLBs who had at least 120 plays. This prevents players with a small sample size from skewing the result, and sifts out some of the players who didn't manage to get themselves involved in as many plays as Ruud. All of these statistics are available over at Football Outsiders.

Name (Team) Total Plays Stops Yards per Play allowed Stop Rate Total Run Plays Stops in Run Game Rush Yards per Play allowed Stop Rate in Run Game
Barrett Ruud(TB) 150 78 5.4 52% 111 63 4.7 57%
London Fletcher(WAS) 147 74 5.4 50% 88 48 3.8 55%
Jon Beason(CAR) 146 75 4.6 51% 99 58 3.9 59%
Kirk Morrison(OAK) 133 79 4.7 59% 99 68 3.5 69%
Curtis Lofton (ATL) 133 72 5.0 55% 92 55 3.4 60%
James Laurinaitis(STL) 125 69 5.2 55% 83 55 4.0 66%
DeMeco Ryans(HOU) 123 74 4.7 60% 68 52 2.4 76%
David Hawthorne (SEA) 121 70 4.3 58% 70 52 2.4 69%

A number of things about Ruud stand out here. First of all, his yards per play allowed in the running game was the worst of any of the qualifying MLBs. Second, his stop rate was the second worst in the group, ahead of only London Fletcher who actually went to the Pro Bowl this year. But what also stands out is that no one came close to Ruud's sheer amount of plays in the run game. This reflects the high amount of runs the Bucs faced, but also Ruud's ability to at least get to the ball. 

Now, Ruud's defenders claim that he was prevented from tackling earlier by the poor play of the Bucs defensive line. Again, Football Outsiders has a nifty statistic to measure this: Adjusted Line Yards. In short, ALY are a measure of the success a defensive line had in stopping the run. They do this by looking at the yards a running back gains against the line on a per-play basis. They count losses for 120% of their value, the first 4 yards of any play for 100% of the value, the next 6 yards for 50% of their value and the rest of the yardage not at all. This is far from perfect, but it's a decent indication of the quality of the line play and frankly all we have. The assumption is that the defensive line can't be held fully responsible for yards further down the field, as there's no way they can stop a back once they're beyond their reach. They then adjust this for the context in which the play took place. You can read some more of the details and reasoning behind this here, you can also find the statistics themselves there.

Now, if we add the D-Line stats to the table and look at the run game, it looks like this:

Name (Team) Total Run Plays Stops in Run Game Rush Yards per Play allowed Stop Rate in Run Game Defensive line ALY
London Fletcher(WAS) 88 48 3.8 55% 4.05
Barrett Ruud(TB) 111 63 4.7 57% 4.44
Jon Beason(CAR) 99 58 3.9 59% 4.40
Curtis Lofton (ATL) 92 55 3.4 60% 3.96
James Laurinaitis(STL) 83 55 4.0 66% 4.31
David Hawthorne (SEA) 70 52 2.4 69% 3.93
Kirk Morrison(OAK) 99 68 3.5 69% 4.08
DeMeco Ryans(HOU) 68 52 2.4 76% 3.65

As you can see, I've sorted the table by stop rate for convenience. This table tells us a number of interesting things. First, over this limited sample there seems to be a relatively strong relation between the linebacker's stop rate and his D-line's ALY. London Fletcher's poor stop rate for his line play doesn't fit with that, and James Laurinaitis excellent stop rate for the poor line play in front of him doesn't either, though. There could be a number of reasons for this, ranging from quality of the player to scheme. Sadly I'm not familiar enough with either the Redskins' or the Rams' scheme to comment meaningfully on this subject. Second, rush yards per play involving the linebacker seem to be correlated less with stop rate and more with ALY. This would suggest that D-line play has a much bigger impact on the running game than linebacker play.

One thing to keep in mind is that this data isn't conclusive and there are a number of problems with these stats. Most importantly, both ALY and Stop Rate are based on yards gained by an opposing back. Hence these are not independent statistics and there will always be some correlation simply by design. This correlation does not mean that one causes the other: obviously both the D-Line and the linebacker contribute to stopping the run game. As I said above, there's an indication that ALY does a decent job of separating D-Line play from linebacker play, but it's far from perfect. However, it's another tool to evaluate Ruud's game and a good starting point for further analysis.

Looking at all this data, I think the idea that middle linebackers suffer from poor D-line play is given some credence and that Ruud should not be held fully accountable for his tackles being so far down the field. Hopefully with improved line play, we'll see Ruud return to his previous form and his impact on the running game become larger. And if that happens, let's hope the Bucs give him a long-term contract.

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