Reggie Nelson rarely jumps out at you when watching him on tape. Often times, he is lined up more than 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage and only appears when a wide receiver beats a corner and needs help deep. He is content—or perhaps more accurately, the coaching staff is content—to prowl in space and keep plays in front of him rather than assume the more celebrated role of freelancing, ball-hawking safety, a la Troy Polamalu. Nelson may not be as dynamic and celebrated as other athletes at his position, but his role is crucial in maintaining order in the ever-improving Bengals defense.
Do you remember the scene where Danny Glover blows up at his team in Angels in the Outfield? When he harps on the guys for bonehead plays and promises to go back to work on fundamentals? Well if Reggie Nelson was transplanted into that scene, he’d be the only player spared. Nelson understands his role and does it well. On a defense that features a potent pass rush and aggressive front seven, the secondary needs to be more of a safety valve than a play-making machine. And the best way to prevent long plays is tackling well. That’s what Nelson brings to the Bengals secondary.
The people behind the site AdvancedNFLstats.com have some interesting ways to look at tackling, breaking down production by each defensive position. They use some basic statistics and Nelson stacks up well to his peers in those categories. (Nelson is tied for fourth in the league among safeties with five tackles for loss.) But there is a different stat that also show’s Nelson’s tackling prowess. Nelson is twelfth among safeties with a tackle factor of 1.18, which basically is a statistical measure of how many tackles a player makes compared to the average production at that level. (Here is a detailed explanation that also includes shortcomings of that stat. They explain it much better than I can.) But in essence, what the stat shows is that Nelson does not miss many tackles. That detail will be especially key this weekend against the Cowboys.
Both Cincinnati and Dallas are on the outside looking to claw (or wrangle, as it were) back into the playoff race. The Cowboys have been particularly impressive in the passing game, with Tony Romo averaging 352.3 yards over his last three games. Romo isn’t putting up those big numbers with long bombs, either. Only 19.4 percent of Romo’s throws this season have been longer than 15 yards, which ranks just 20th in the league. (Next on that list? Andy Dalton, throwing 19.1 percent of passes deep.)
This Sunday, Romo will be eyeing favorite target Dez Bryant, who has been on a tear recently, averaging 8.6 receptions, 129.3 yards, and 1.6 touchdowns per game over his last three contests. But as you may expect, his production is not coming from simply running “go” routes. Only 32 percent of Bryant’s routes are classified as deep patterns, which ranks 29th in the league.
So what do all these stats mean for the Bengals? It means that tackling will be at a premium. The Cowboys will sling the ball all over the yard, but if they aren’t breaking long runs after the catch, their production can be limited.
So strap up your helmet, Reggie, square up your shoulders, harness your inner Captain Insano, and get ready to be a busy man come Sunday.