Champ Bailey and YAC and smoking crack

Earlier in the week, Football Outsiders reported that in 2011, Champ Bailey gave up more yards after the catch (YAC) than any other cornerback in the league.

Was this a sign that Bailey was getting older, losing a step, or declining in skills?

On the surface, it's easy to look at Bailey's YAC stat and smoke the crack (and become immediately paranoid). If you had not watched a Broncos game all year, you'd assume Bailey was either missing a lot of tackles after the receiver caught the ball or he was getting beat deep badly.  Luckily, the gang at FO qualified the numbers:

Now, let's be clear: These YAC allowed numbers generally don't say much about the actual quality of a cornerback. There's generally very little correlation between a cornerback's rank in Success Rate and his rank in YAC allowed. Still, it is very strange to see Champ Bailey giving up the most average YAC of any starting cornerback in 2011 -- and by a wide margin. Isn't he known as an excellent tackler for a cornerback? Yes, and there isn't much evidence that this is an issue of tackling. We only recorded Bailey with two broken tackles on plays where he was in coverage. He just seemed to have a few more plays than usual where guys got behind him on short- and mid-range routes.

As we always preach around these parts, stats are nothing without context.  So let's provide some when it comes to Bailey and his YAC (not to be confused with GOAT, which is purely a term reserved for Norv Turner).

A play that occurred in Week 13 against the Vikings is a good example of how stats, taken out of context, can lie like Gregg Williams in a bounty scandal cover.  It occurred in the 4th quarter with 9:53 remaining.  The Vikings were ahead 22-21 and facing a 2nd and 10 from their own 48-yard line.  The Broncos decided to show the following coverage, which, as we'll later see, was a disaster waiting to happen:

The Broncos show the Viking a Cover 1, man under, which is just another way of saying they've left themselves one safety deep to help those three linebackers and Champ Bailey, should he need it.  They are also showing blitz, with six men at the line of scrimmage.  Champ, for his part, is playing off-man coverage.  It's pretty standard stuff: give 7-10 yards of cushion and look in at the quarterback to get a read.

Look at the wrinkle the Vikings show here: an unbalanced formation with not one, not two, but three tight ends to the far side of the field.  This is the Broncos' worst nightmare.  Brian Dawkins is blitzing, which vacates the flat, Joe Mays--the Broncos' best run stopper--is man up on the tight end, and Andre' Goodman is facing the prospect of battling a much larger man for the ball.  Nothing good can come out of this for the Broncos unless the Vikings decide to run.  Of course, they don't.

The coverage quickly falters at the snap of the ball.  One tight end hits the flat and is about as open as one can be.  Christian Ponder could have hit him for a touchdown as soon as he recognized (if he did) that Dawkins was blitzing.  And yet it matters little. The blitz is too late.  Percy Harvin--the primary receiver and most dangerous man on the field--runs a quick slant.

The quick slant against Bailey's off-man coverage is a recipe for disaster.  Now Bailey, in order to make the tackle, has to not only close the 7-10 yard cushion he started with, but he's got to run through the traffic created by the other two tight ends in the play.  Notice just how far Bailey has to go in relation to where Ponder and Harvin hook up.

The result is predictable:

Ponder hits Harvin at about the 42-yard line.  Under normal circumstances, Bailey simply trails the play, works his way through traffic, and makes the tackle near the 40-yard line, resulting in a nice gain, but little in the way of YAC.  Instead, the tight end (you know, the one that was never covered to begin with in the flat), comes back to the play and tries to take Bailey's head off.

Here's further proof:

Champ Bailey is a future Hall of Famer, but no one makes this play on Harvin--no one, not even Ronnie Lott or Steve Atwater.  A few second later, Kyle McCarthy misses a tackle; Harvin scores a touchdown.

This is a problem, and not just because the Broncos' coverage call on the play was brutal.  Bailey is charged with about 40 yards of YAC on this play.  Why?  It's because he's the defender of record.  Yet with a simple viewing of the tape (and with a little context), we know that not one single yard on this play can be attributed to Bailey's lack of skill, coverage, youth, or "intangibles."  It was simply a dumb coverage, or if you prefer, a great call by the Vikings.  But Bailey is the statistical fall guy.  In truth, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and safety Kyle McCarthy should share equally in a portion of the blame on this play.

This is a good lesson for all of us who love and caress stats (and I do have room to talk here, as I once ran a linear regression between temperature at kickoff and the number of points the Broncos scored over a 10-year period).  Always, always try and put context around your numbers, especially when the sample size is small.

There are other lessons, too.  The first lesson is an offensive one: throwing to the zone vacated by the blitz is usually a winning formula.  The second lesson is that a quick slant works against any corner if they are giving up a 10-yard cushion in traffic.  The final lesson?

Champ Bailey is just fine, thanks.  Put that in your crack pipe and smoke it.

Which cornerback do you expect to see the most snaps at corner opposite Champ Bailey?

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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