We Should Probably Talk About That Tackling (Or Lack Thereof)

Courtesy IU Athletics

Going into the Maryland game, if you had asked most IU fans to name the defense’s biggest weakness, I suspect most of them would have pointed to a secondary that struggles against downfield passing or an inconsistent pass rush. Against the Terrapins, however, an additional weakness came to the fore: tackling.

Make no mistake, tackling has been an under-the-radar issue for the IU defense all season. They missed 13 tackles on a rainy night against UVA. They missed ten more in roughly three quarters of non-garbage time action against Iowa, and nine more against Penn State. But last Saturday’s performance against Maryland was particularly bad…

As shown in the chart, twelve different IU players missed a tackle. That’s the most in a single game since I started tracking missed tackles in 2016 (i.e. the most in the Allen Era). Seven players missed multiple tackles, also the most since I started tracking. And, no surprise, the 20 total missed tackles was the most to date in the Allen Era.

So was this the worst tackling performance under Coach Allen? To measure that, first we need to adjust for the number of plays in a particular game. Logically, missing 10 tackles when the defense only defends 50 plays is worse than missing 10 tackles in a 100-play game. But simply taking total missed tackles and dividing it by total plays isn’t quite right because a game with a bunch of incompletions – presumably against a team that passes a lot – generally has fewer opportunities to miss tackles than a game against a more run-heavy team.[ref] And yes, I understand that a tackle can be missed on a play that ends in an incompletion, like when a blitzer misses and the QB throws it away. This metric isn’t perfect, but it’s a decent approximation.[/ref] So I took the total number of plays and subtracted out incompletions to come up with my “missed tackle rate” denominator.[ref] I like this denominator better than simply using total tackles because (1) there are usually several plays a game in which a ballcarrier goes out of bounds and a tackle isn’t recorded, but a tackle may have been missed along the way, and (2) total tackles would include special teams tackles, and I don’t track missed tackles on special teams.[/ref] Here’s a chart of the five worst tackling performances of the Allen Era, using my Missed Tackle Rate calculation:

By .7%, IU’s tackling performance in the Foster Farms Bowl loss to Utah was worse than last week. A woeful performance in last year’s Bucket Game takes the bronze. Surprisingly, IU won two of those five games, and lost 1 other in overtime (2017 Michigan).

So yeah, missing a tackle on more than a quarter of the plays on which a tackle is possible is a problem. Heading into IU’s final two games, however, I’m not sure there’s an easy fix. And of course, two of the games on the chart above were IU’s 2017 games against its final two 2018 opponents, Michigan and Purdue. This problem may get worse before it gets better.

That said, getting WLB Raekwon Jones back on the field should help. Jones has missed only two tackles all season, and there’s at least a chance he’ll play against Michigan after missing the Maryland game due to injury. Aside from that, the Hoosiers also need their best defenders – namely Jonathan Crawford and Marcelino Ball – to avoid mistakes, like their combined five missed tackles against Maryland.

If IU can somehow shore up this tackling problem in a weeks’ time…well they’ll still lose to Michigan. But IU’s tackling could certainly play a pivotal role against the Boilers next week.