Turnover Inducing Tackles

The tackle is one of the most context lacking statistics in football. The act of the tackle itself is of course discrete: one or two defensive players wrestling an offensive player to the ground. But what each tackle means to the goal of the defense varies widely, and cannot be described meaningfully by a simple tally of how many tackles a player has made, as is common on traditional NFL stat views. This article will try to add some context to the tackle.

Most tackles have a neutral outcome, at least at the time of the tackle. Take a tackle made after a three yard gain on 1st and 10: it’s unknowable by itself if that tackle will contribute to a good result for the defense. Some tackles come from a bad outcome, such as one that happened after a 40 yard gain by the offense. (To be clear, this result might not be the tackler’s fault: a teammate may have blown a coverage or failed to set an edge, and his tackle saved the play from being worse.)

And some tackles are always good. The most glorious of these is the sack, when the most important player in the quarterback is taken down behind the line of scrimmage. Tackling any ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage has the same effect as a sack, thus the tackle for loss has also been recognized as an important defensive stat. Tackles that force a fumble are also very important, as it gives the defense the ability to seize a turnover.

However, these tackles, while good, by themselves do not guarantee achieving the defense’s goal on every drive–to force the offense to give up possession. A sack or tackle for loss could be negated by a long conversion on the next play. And while forcing fumbles is always the sign of a strong defense, fumble recoveries are notorious for being the most luck riddled aspect of football, and sometimes the offense gets that recovery luck and keeps its drive alive.

But there also tackles missed by these statistics that always achieve the ultimate goal of the defense. Stopping any 4th down conversion, of course, results in a turnover on downs–whether it’s a tackle for loss on 4th and 1, or a 19 yard gain on 4th and 20. The offense yielding the ball to the defense also occurs on a punt after a failed 3rd down conversion, and while significant yardage is yielded on a punt, so too would a play when a quarterback is intercepted on a very deep pass, and interceptions are always scored as a win for the defense, and as a significant stat for the interceptor.

To my knowledge, these tackles have been ignored by traditional statistics. Therefore, I’m making an effort to create a new statistic that captures these important tackles. They are turnover inducing tackles. (Yes, I am well aware of the acronym I have created in the process.) And thanks to the great work by nflverse in crunching play-by-play data with extensive identification of what happened on each play, it’s possible to put this concept to numbers.

What is a turnover inducing tackle?

A player earns a turnover inducing tackle (1 if the tackle is solo, 0.5 if the tackle is shared) if his tackle results in any of the following four outcomes:

  1. A safety
  2. A failed 4th down conversion
  3. A failed 3rd down conversion that does not result in a made field goal
  4. A forced fumble that is recovered by the defense

A brief note is needed on the third and fourth criteria: while failed 3rd down conversions and forced fumbles are always good in the proximate for the defense, the turnover inducing tackle practices consequentialism: if the offense scores a field goal or recovers a fumble, the ultimate defensive goal of a turnover was not achieved.

Turnover inducing tackles also overlap with other stats, something that is common. A player who strips a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage with his side recovering the ball could earn a sack, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, and a turnover inducing tackle all in one play.

Comparing turnover inducing tackles to all tackles

For an example of how turnover inducing tackles can be more insightful, let’s take a look at the leaders in both statistics in the 2012 NFL regular season.

2012 Top 20 players in total tackles

1Luke KuechlyLB10361164
2Chad GreenwayLB9850148
2NaVorro BowmanLB9652148
4Jerod MayoLB8859147
5Jerrell FreemanLB9055145
6James LaurinaitisLB11725142
7Bobby WagnerLB8753140
8London FletcherLB7861139
8Paul PoslusznyLB10633139
8Lavonte DavidLB11227139
11Karlos DansbyLB10133134
11Daryl WashingtonLB10826134
13Russell AllenLB10724131
14Perry Riley Jr.LB7356129
15Vontaze BurfictLB7354127
16Derrick JohnsonLB11015125
17David HarrisLB7944123
17Curtis LoftonLB8241123
17Morgan BurnettS8835123
20Rey MaualugaLB6260122

As you’re likely all aware, total tackle leaders are dominated by off ball linebackers, with the occasional box safety making an appearance. There are some stars on this list–Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are highly likely Hall of Famers, and they made this list in their rookie seasons. Plenty of others were Pro Bowlers, assisted by having inside linebacker carved out as a position official to that award. But there are also plenty of players that, while they were solid starters this season (you have to be at least a solid starter to earn this many tackles) were nothing more that such, and a few rarely saw seasons better than they did in 2012.

Now, let’s look at turnover inducing tackles in this season.

2012 players with double digit turnover inducing tackles

1Von MillerEDGE16124
2Ronde BarberCB14.570
3Julius PeppersEDGE14303
3Daryl WashingtonLB1411
5Dannell EllerbeLB12.570
5Stephen TullochLB12.529
5Josh WilsonCB12.574
8Cameron WakeEDGE12199
8James LaurinaitisLB126
10Charles JohnsonEDGE11.5279
11Cortland FinneganCB1143
11DeMeco RyansLB11113
11Muhammad WilkersonIDL1169
14Wesley WoodyardLB10.524
14Thomas DavisLB10.534
16Justin DurantLB1039
16John AbrahamEDGE10348
16Anthony SpencerEDGE1061
16Jabaal SheardEDGE10185

You’ll immediately see position diversity in this list. Edge rushers will show up among turnover inducing tackle leaders about as commonly as linebackers do, and the leading edge rushers are often among the best. Here, Von Miller and Julius Peppers are Hall of Fame locks, while Cameron Wake and John Abraham were regular disruptors off the edge with very long careers. Defensive backs are also more common, headlined here by Hall of Famer Ronde Barber, while interior defensive linemen are rarer but those capable of regularly disrupting the backfield will show up, as Muhammad Wilkerson does here, and we’ll see other superstars at that position like JJ Watt (who just misses double digits in 2012 with 9) and Aaron Donald show up near the top in other seasons.

Only two top 20 leaders in total tackles in 2012 make this list (James Laurinaitis and Daryl Washington). Among the other linebackers that make this list, we may be able to detect some players that, even if they weren’t stars, quietly had excellent play for at least this season.

Long term leaders in turnover inducing tackles

As of the publishing of this article, Thin Air Research’s main page on turnover inducing tackles spans from 2011, the first season of a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement, to 2022. Here are the top twelve players in turnover inducing tackles that entered the league in 2011 or later:

1Lavonte DavidLB124
2Von MillerEDGE96.5
3Bobby WagnerLB86.5
4J.J. WattIDL77.5
5Aaron DonaldIDL76
6Khalil MackEDGE75.5
7Justin HoustonEDGE75
8Chandler JonesEDGE70
9Eric KendricksLB69.5
10Cameron JordanEDGE68.5
11Luke KuechlyLB66.5
12Demario DavisLB66

I was quite surprised as to who was far and away the top player among players in this time span. The next four players in Miller, Wagner, Watt, and Donald are all players that should have little trouble in becoming Hall of Famers. Yet hardly anyone, perhaps long time Bucs observers being the exception, would even consider Lavonte David on the same level. Yet when I dug into traditional stats for David compared to Wagner (3rd on this list) and Kuechly (11th), all off ball linebackers drafted in 2012, he is very much on par with both of them:

Statistic Lavonte David Bobby Wagner Luke Kuechly
Sacks 29 29.5 12.5
Tackles For Loss 143 78 75
Interceptions 12 13 18
Passes Defensed 59 65 66
Forced Fumbles 27 6 7
Turnover Inducing Tackles 124 66.5 68.5
Total Negative Plays 394 278 247

It’s also instructive to look at the top earners of turnover inducing tackles over one season. The average and median numbers from 2011-2022 are both within 14 to 15, so I’ll post all players who got at least 14.5 turnover inducing tackles in a season:

1NaVorro BowmanLB201321
2Lavonte DavidLB201317
3Robert MathisEDGE201316.5
3Maxx CrosbyEDGE202216.5
5Von MillerEDGE201216
5Fred WarnerLB202216
7Roquan SmithLB202015.5
7Myles GarrettEDGE202215.5
9Ronde BarberCB201214.5
9Lawrence TimmonsLB201414.5
9Lavonte DavidLB201414.5
9Ryan ShazierLB201714.5
9Jamal AdamsS202014.5
9Lavonte DavidLB202214.5

David is only player that shows up on this list more than once, and he’s on here three times. Suffice to say, he is a player that I should have given more respect and attention than I did before. If I had to guess why, it would be that the NFL, wrongly stuck to antiquated positions on defense, classifies David as an outside linebacker despite playing off ball, and as such he has had to compete with edge rushers for postseason honors like the Pro Bowl, of which he only has one–in 2015, in which he of course led the league in turnover induced tackles, with “only” 12.5. And even if the NFL did the right thing with using the interior defensive line, edge rusher, and off ball linebacker classifications, David would have to compete with fellow Class of 2012 linebackers in Wagner and Kuechly for postseason honors at that position.

And my hope is that turnover inducing tackles can add one more tool among many to better recognize great football players, and when they did great things. As one more example to conclude, among players who entered the league in 2011 or later, the leading defensive back in turnover inducing tackles is another player that at least started off unheralded: Chris Harris Jr., a key member of the No Fly Zone of the Broncos in the decade of the 2010s. This play of his here in a high stakes playoff game is a leading example of a turnover inducing tackle that was neither a sack nor an interception nor a forced fumble nor a pass defensed–but it still created a critical turnover, the ultimate goal of the defense.