2014 Over/Under Predictions for NFL's Defending Defensive Stats Leaders
Flash back to the NFC Championship last January. Visualize San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree—before he became a "sorry receiver"—going deep into the right side of the end zone and Colin Kaepernick tossing a fade his way. You see the same result every time, right?
You see Richard Sherman tipping the ball into the hands of fellow defender Malcolm Smith, sending the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl—which they would ultimately win in a blowout of the Denver Broncos—and Sherman running over to taunt Crabtree on what just happened. We all do. We all see it over and over. It left an indelible image.
Now, remember your thoughts or even spoken words at that moment.
"(Gasp in silence.)"
It was likely one of those. Mine was more pragmatic, and it was uttered matter-of-factly in stone-faced shock:
"Why the heck do they test that guy there? Of all people to target. San Francisco, you deserve to lose."
The 49ers have to be regretting that decision.
This is a long-winded way to remind you NFL offensive coordinators are not as dumb as they look sometimes. They learn from history and vow to not repeat the same mistakes.
It is why, as we present a slideshow on the reigning defensive stat leaders, we predict none of them will repeat their success...at least to their 2013 statistical level.
Offensive coordinators don't worry as much about who they are attacking as much defensive coordinators fret about who they are defending, but that doesn't mean those offensive minds don't know enough to avoid those stat hogs all the same.
Heck, test someone other than Sherman. Block Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Defending sack champion Robert Mathis? Well, he was already dealt a blow to his 2014 sack hopes by a league-imposed suspension.
We recap the 2013 defense stat leaders—there are precious few numbers to ring up on that side of the ball in football—and break down why they all will not surpass last year's totals. We give you data, circumstances, quotes and reasoning. We also throw in a little extra: A shot in the dark prediction as to who will be similarly discounted on repeating their stats success in 2015.
19.5 Sacks: OLB Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts
- Mathis is 33, which is past the age of decline for pass-rusher.
- Mathis' age puts him at great risk for injury.
- Werner's talent, presence and likely second-year improvement could earn him more snaps at the rush-linebacker spot even after Mathis' return. Werner is a former first-round pick, after all.
The Indianapolis Colts' outside linebacker Robert Mathis is the reigning NFL sack leader from 2013, registering 19.5 sacks. Moving to the 3-4 rush-linebacker position before last season proved to be bountiful for Mathis statistically. He edged out St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, who had 19 sacks, and also edged Quinn in forced fumbles (8-7), per Stats LLC (subscription required).
Prediction: Under 19.5
While sacks might be the favorite defensive statistic for the NFL masses, our slideshow started with a very easy Over-Under to predict. Mathis will not reach his 2013 total because he is suspended for the first four games of the season due to a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, as Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star chronicled.
Mathis' club-record sack total was 14.5 more than the next highest total among his teammates, Jerrell Freeman's 5.5, which is the sixth-widest team differential since the NFL started charting sacks in 1982, according to Chappell. Clearly, Mathis was a one-man wrecking crew, but the Colts are going to sorely miss him for the first four games of the season.
To offset that loss, the Colts are working first-round pick Bjoern Werner as the rush-linebacker starter in training camp, Chappell reported.
Mathis is due for a decline for myriad reasons not including the suspension, too.
No. 3 on that list might be the biggest reason we should expect a precipitous decline in Mathis' sack total—outside of the suspension, of course. Werner told Chappell he expects his sack total to increase with the added snaps.
I mean, yeah, that's the goal for every young pass-rusher. Be that counterpart for Rob. Last year Rob got all the sacks for himself. We need people to step up and get some sacks, too. Put that pressure on the quarterback. I need to step up and just play better football than what I did last year.
Shot in the dark 2014 leader: DE Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers 18 sacks
171 Combined Tackles: Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals
In just his second year in the league, Cincinnati Bengals 4-3 "Will" Linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the NFL with 171 combined tackles (114 solo and 57 assisted), topping Jacksonville Jaguars 4-3 "Mike" linebacker Paul Posluszny's 162. Burfict's total was the highest since Jerod Mayo's 175 with the New England Patriots in 2010.
Prediction: Under 171 combined tackles
It usually isn't a great idea to bet against a player like Burfict who will turn just 24 in September. His third year in the league should be one of further improvement, not statistical decline. But hear us out.
The Cincinnati Bengals lost defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer this winter to the Minnesota Vikings and installed linebackers coach Paul Guenther as Zimmer's replacement. That change won't necessarily negatively impact Burfict as a leader and a defensive difference-maker, but it can affect his combined tackle total.
Reason 1: Burfict lost his position coach. Now, Guenther is making Burfict the signal-caller and leader of the defense, but he won't necessarily have as much time to nurture him as his position coach this season. Also, Burfict has the added responsibilities of worrying about more than just himself on the field.
That is a lot for a soon-to-be 24-year-old. Guenther told Geoff Hobson of the Bengals' official website about Burfict's added role:
He understands the whole picture better than anybody. Like I'm teaching the whole defense now. I'm teaching the outside linebackers to know what the safeties are doing, the corners to know what the linebackers are doing. That's how I taught the linebacker room and that's how I'm installing the defense.
Early in his career he would get mad. He's so competitive he would get mad at guys. I said, 'Look you can't do that,' because now that's going to set him off which is going to set a fire. I really worked on his leadership abilities and how to go about it in different ways. It's a long season and you can't use the same way every time. Just like I can't. You've got to find different ways to motivate guys as the season goes. I'm really working through that with him and he's doing a good job. He's a natural leader anyways.
Second, it is not easy to lead the NFL in combined tackles as a weak-side linebacker. Those huge tackle totals are generally reserved for the men in the middle. The next four guys behind Burfict a year ago played inside, where they run sideline to sideline.
While Guenther was quick to install Burfict as his signal-caller and defensive leader, he won't be switching Burfict to Rey Maualuga's middle linebacker spot, he told Hobson.
One of the things I always read about in the paper is we've got to put him in at middle linebacker. It's not like that anymore in the NFL. He plays middle linebacker in our sub packages. He plays outside linebacker in our base. He came in as a middle linebacker in college, but we moved him to Will because we had an injury there. Why move him if he's doing well there?
He's leading the league in tackles, so why move him to a different spot?...I will put a lot on him on game day to make checks in and out. We play pretty much every good quarterback in the league this year. They're going to be smart enough to see some of the looks, so I'm going to give Vontaze a little leeway to get us in and out of some defenses as he knows he should.
Finally, perhaps most important, when you lead the league in tackles in just your second season, NFL offenses happen to take notice. Burfict is going to find himself blocked a lot more by more than one man on more and more plays this season.
As a defensive leader, he won't mind. He will just alert his buddies who are freed to clean up the scraps unblocked.
Shot in the dark 2014 leader: MLB Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers 165 combined tackles
8 Interceptions: CB Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman did more last season than win the Super Bowl, serve as the legendary Legion of Boom's shockingly confident public voice, taunt Michael Crabtree at the conclusion of the NFC Championship and verbally annihilate him afterward. Sherman also led the NFL with eight interceptions. Sherman's total was higher than three others and he was even tied for second in passes defensed.
Yes, it was quite a year for the 25-year-old.
Prediction: Under 8 interceptions
This is another easy one that will sound obvious after we explain the circumstances. Like we said with Vontaze Burfict's combined tackles, NFL offensive coordinators can read. They know the score and the stats.
Sherman can go off all he wants to Darrelle Revis and Joe Haden about how he is the greatest cornerback in the world because he registered eight picks and 24 passes defensed. Sherman only got challenged like that because offensive coordinators thought they could win that matchup.
Clearly, they should be searching to find another way now.
Interception leaders generally are not great defenders. Those guys tend to be avoided. Last year's leaderboard doesn't read like a Pro Bowl lineup.
We will submit, perhaps regrettably, Sherman has gone from good to great. He won't be thrown at as much anymore. So, Sherman, welcome to the islands reserved for the likes of the New England Patriots' Revis and Cleveland Browns' Haden.
You want more reason than that? You shouldn't need one, but here goes...drum roll...Sherman is featured on the Madden NFL 15 cover, as ESPN.com's Terry Blount reported. Maybe Sherman will be swallowing his Adam's Apple as he looks over the victims affected by that infamous jinx, as chronicled here by Wikia gaming.
Shot in the dark 2014 leader: FS Jairus Byrd, New Orleans Saints—Seven interceptions
3 Touchdowns: CB DeAngelo Hall, Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins' DeAngelo Hall registered an NFL-high three defensive touchdowns, scoring twice on interception returns and once on a fumble recovery return. He tied with many others in both categories, but he was the only one to tie for the lead in both.
The Kansas City Chiefs' Tamba Hali, Buffalo Bills' Da'Norris Searcy and Cleveland Browns' T.J. Ward are the only other players to register defensive touchdowns both ways last season, but they all had just one of each.
Prediction: Under 3 touchdowns
This might surprise you, perhaps, but DeAngelo Hall is one of only five active players with 40-plus interceptions (behind Ed Reed, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey and Asante Samuel), according to Mike Jones of The Washington Post. Being in that exclusive company usually means one thing: You have been around awhile.
Hall is now 30. He knows his NFL clock is ticking as a playmaking corner, telling The Post's Jones:
Mentally, I'm just in a place where I know I don't have a lot of football left, so I want to go out there, have as much fun as possible, lay it all on the line and not leave anything in the tank, so when I do walk away from this game, I feel good about it. That's just been my approach to these offseason practices, and even last year. I just want to have fun and help us win as many games as possible.
The goal is not about my individual success. ... I understand it's not about me, but about this team and I'm just trying to make everybody better. If I can have [second-year pro and fellow starter] David Amerson or some of these other young guys step up and make plays, that's ultimately what I want to happen. I want these guys to eventually take over when I'm done or can't do it anymore.
Defensive touchdowns are as difficult to predict year to year as they are hard to come by. Not only will Hall not lead the league in defensive scores, but he might not score a touchdown at all.
It can be a thankless, stats-less job, playing defense in the NFL.
Shot in the dark 2014 leader: LB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Three touchdowns
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.