Quoth Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” So also quoth the, like, 1875 people who have covered that song since then.
And you know what? They were right.
Last year, I and other beat writers hammered home the point that we thought it was a bit of a travesty that Kentrell Brothers did not get more Butkus Award or first-team All-America love. We beat that drum, almost, to the point of absurdity.
And you know what? We were right, too. In fact, we might have understated our cases a bit.
If Brothers’ 2015 season, one of the finest ever put together by a Missouri defender, didn’t convince you of that, then his performance in the Tigers’ defense this year should.
Or, rather, the absence of his performance.
Kentrell. Effin. Brothers.
He was so valuable to Missouri’s defense in so many different ways. His football knowledge and diagnostic skills allowed him to sniff out what was happening before it did. His tactical skills allowed him to take angles into all sorts of plays he should’ve never been near. His skill set allowed Barry Odom all sorts of freedom with the rest of the defensive scheme because he knew Brothers would do his job and, like, five other dudes’.
And now he’s gone.
Cross has told reporters this week that defensive changes are on their way, starting with the linebacking corps. Here’s the Tribune’s Blake Toppmeyer on that. Michael Scherer has said Missouri’s defense is still adjusting to the new scheme.
Unless that new scheme and this new linebacker usage plan include Kentrell Brothers scoring an extra year of eligibility, I don’t know that anything’s bringing back the 2015 Missouri defense.
So far, all of this has been very subjective and seemingly hyperbolic. That’s not usually my style. So let’s get down with some numbers.
The below spreadsheet includes all the solo, assisted, total (solo + 0.5*assisted) and sum (total + assisted) non special-teams tackles made by the different position groups in Missouri’s defense in 2015 and 2016. Further, you have the percent of total tackles each group made/makes up.
Further, you have snaps-per-tackle stats for the linebackers each season, along with each backer’s proportion of his position group’s total tackles.
Further, you have the percent of each backer’s tackles (solo + 0.5*assisted) that happened in different yardage groups — for loss, 0-3 yards from the line, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-plus — and the proportion of his total tackles that came in those yardage increments. Further, you have the total yards from scrimmage — full yardage for a solo tackle, half the yardage for an assist -- that each backer’s tackles totaled to come up with an average of how far from the line he was making his plays, paired with the rest of the group and the rest of the team.
In this, we hope to address the quantity and quality of tackles Missouri is missing in Brothers.
Here are the numbers, then let’s talk:
This season, Missouri’s linebackers are taking up 35.6 percent of the team’s total tackles, an 11-percent drop from last season. The Tigers’ backers are making some sort of action (solo or assisted tackle) once every 9.23 snaps, or 30 percent less frequently than the once every 7.10 snaps they logged last year.
That wouldn’t be a big issue if the missed tackles were being hogged by linemen. They’re not. Linemen snaps-per-action are down 19.3 percent. Defensive back snaps-per-action are up 9.86 percent.
The drop in linebacker productivity is Brothers-shaped.
By any measure, he made up between 42-45 percent of the group’s tackle output last year and averaged a tackle — solo or assisted -- every 5.28 snaps. Nobody on this year’s team comes close to that production. Terez Hall (7.50) comes closest, but he’s played only 22.5 snaps a game. Brothers played nearly three times that (66.8) last year.
Scherer’s rate has improved from 8.75 to 7.76. Donavin Newsom’s has edged up 5.5 percent from 8.68 to 9.16.
Joey Burkett’s rate (one action per 13.41 snaps) is 154 percent less productive than Brothers’.
On the whole, Missouri’s three starting linebackers logged a solo or assisted tackle once every 7.01 snaps. This year, that rate is once every 9.52, a 36-percent decrease.
Think of it this way: Newsom and Burkett combined are on pace for 86 solo, 43 assisted, 107.5 total and 129 sum tackles this season. Brothers himself put up 73, 79, 112.5 and 152 last year.
He was two players. Maybe even more.
So, when the defensive line can’t make the play, opponents aren’t ending up in linebackers’ arms anymore. They’re ending up in the secondary.
Last year’s linebacking corps logged 50.6 percent of its tackles for loss or within 3 yards of the line last year, 27.8 percent came 7 yards from the line or further.
This year, that 7-plus figure has barely budged (27.9) and the 3 yards or fewer figure is down 4.5 percent to 48.3.
Who made the group’s highest proportion of his tackles from 3 yards and fewer last year? Why that’d be Brothers, of course, at 55.6 percent. Scherer (51.4) was the only other one over 50 percent in that range.
This year, Scherer is still there (55.6 percent, coincidentally enough). The other two starters — Burkett (41.7) and Newsom (40.7) — are not.
So, while Scherer is making his average tackle almost a yard further upfield than Brothers was last year (3.59 vs. 4.56), both of the other starters are over 5 yards from scrimmage on their average tackles.
Last year, the Big 3’s average tackle was 4.45 yards from the line of scrimmage. This year, it’s 4.54 yards.
That’s not a huge difference if we’re just talking rate. But when we’re talking rate for a group that has been 11-percent less productive than last year in terms of the team’s total tackles and the savings get passed on to the secondary, these things tend to add up.
Missouri’s defensive issues this year are an inextricable Jenga tower of scheme and talent. It’s just as erroneous to say the regression is the players’ fault for not being as skilled as it is to say it’s the coaches’ fault for not figuring out ways to use them.
And, while this is an oversimplification, the Unifying Theory of Space-Time Kentrell Brothers Vacuum is a pretty good place to start.
Last year’s defense relied heavily on stellar linebacker play cleaning up messes. This year’s defense does not have stellar linebacker play.
So the messes ensue.