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The Value of Things: Gaming the Secondary

What is the platoon advantage and how does it work?

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NFL: JAN 09 Titans at Texans Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is something in baseball that has been called the “platoon advantage”. Even though it is a relatively new concept, it is one that volleyball coaches have known forever. Your team usually has a mix of tall girls and short girls. It makes very little sense to play any of them all the way around. The tall ones play at the net and the short ones play in back row. At least that is how it is supposed to work.

Coaches have types. I had them when I was a coach and when I watch my daughter’s teams those coaches do too. I know this all too well because she never seems to be any of their type. She often looks awkward when she performs athletic skills, but the ball goes where it is supposed to go more often than not. I know this because I keep stats. I keep stats because I know some players look really good doing whatever it is they are doing but somehow cost the team a ton of points. When you don’t keep stats you can overlook these things when the player is your type of player.

Vince Gennaro wrote a book called “Diamond Dollars” where he made a number of keen observations. One of them was that hitters often have pronounced splits against lefties and righties. The players that are good against both cost a premium. Roughly 80 percent of pitchers are right-handed. So, if you can find a player that produces against righties then he can produce 80 percent of what that star produces, but will cost a fraction of what the star costs. Pair him with someone that mashes lefties and you have a star combination for much less.

Bringing this to Football

There are players that play all three downs well. They stop the run, they blitz the quarterback, they cover wide receivers. They make money hand over fist. There are others that do one or two of those things well. Obviously, nothing is universal in the league, but you can break down plays where a team is more likely to run the ball than not. The reverse is also true.

So, we could game the secondary to account for these tendencies and therefore put players in a position where they are more likely to be successful. When you do that, their individual numbers improve, but your overall team defense improves as well. If you remove the turnovers last season, the Texans had one of the worst defenses in football. The secondary was one of the chief culprits.

Gaming the Corners

The rookies have been removed since they have no numbers in the NFL. We can hope that Derek Stingley Jr. will be a shut down corner. That’s certainly what he was his freshman year at LSU where he put up an PFF grade above 90. I lost my college-to-pro decoder ring, so I can’t tell you what that would have been in the NFL, but i suspect he will eventually be better than anything the Texans currently have. So, with each player we will list their overall PFF grade, their grade against the run, and then their grade in coverage.

Taviere Thomas: 77.6, 86.5, 76.1

Steven Nelson: 63.6, 70.6, 61.4

Jimmy Moreland: 62. 5, 61.3. N/A

Tremon Smith: 58.3, 76.3. 54.4

Desmond King: 53.0. 75.3, 47.7

So, what happened to Desmond King? Well, the simple answer is that you took a corner that had spent a career guarding receivers in the slot and asked him to cover outside receivers. When Terence Mitchell is your only other corner of note that tends to happen. He and King ended up being very similar on the outside and the Texans may have had the worst outside corner tandem in football.

So, a part of this analysis is simply to compare what we currently have with what we had. There is bound to be improvement. Secondly, it demonstrates something simple. If you put my daughter (all 5’4” of her) on the front row she isn’t likely to produce. Is this her fault or is it the fault of the coach that put her there? Similarly, King’s grades on the inside have been solid throughout his career. Is it his fault he is not proficient at covering outside receivers?

Gaming the Safeties

The Texans employed three safeties that qualified with enough snaps to be ranked by PFF. Out of the 92 safeties that qualified, all three ranked 80th or lower. Lonnie Johnson finished at what we can affectionately label DAL (dead-ass last). In fact, he was more than eleven points lower than the 91st ranked safety. As we used to say, he was so far in the basement that they had to pipe light down to him.

Yet, it was Justin Reid’s scores that were so disappointing. He opened his career with two 70+ seasons according to PFF. They were seasons where he would have been a legitimate pro bowler. Last year he tumbled well below 60. So, their safety play was easily the worst in football. Was it a LOFT problem or were they simply being asked to do things they weren’t personally good at doing? That’s a huge question moving forward.

M.J. Stewart: 83.8, 59.8, 86.0

Jonathan Owens: 73.1, 65.6, 71.1

Terrence Brooks: 51.8, 67.6, 47.5

Eric Murray: 50.9, 45.4, 54.7

This obviously doesn’t include Jason Pitre. He might be an every down safety which means you would only need to find one other spot in the base defense. Brooks is the best at playing the run while Stewart and Owens were really good at playing the pass. For comparison sake, Reid finished just below Murray in the standings and Johnson finished just above 30. This might be the most improved unit on the field next season.

Conclusion

If Lovie Smith employs a platoon advantage, he can put four or five secondary players together that will be good in running and passing situations. They may not be the same four or five guys depending on the circumstances. He can also switch things up depending on the player. Murray was an above average blitzer for instance. Pitre and Stingley will hopefully be every down players which means finding just two or three more capable guys depending on the situation. If we see low grades again it just might be more a Lovie problem than a talent problem.