Houston Texans Turnover Tracker Pt 2: Fumbles and Tony Dungy Disciples

Is Lovie Smith responsible for the 2021/2022 Texans ranking 8th in forced fumbles and 17th in fumble recoveries?

The 2021-2022 Houston Texans defense marginally improved as veteran defensive coordinator (DC) Lovie Smith took over the reins from rookie DC Anthony Weaver. Playing a simple, fast and “bend but don’t break” style of defense, Smith’s unit was heavily dependent on forcing turnovers to slow down offenses.

Forcing turnovers has an immense impact on the outcome of a game. A 2013 study concluded that teams with more interceptions than their opponent won the game 80% of the time and teams that forced and recovered more fumbles than their opponents won the game 70% of the time.

For a Texans unit that is still lacking in elite talent, they may continue to live or die by the amount of takeaways they generate. This is the second piece in a three-part series intending to discover what exactly Smith has done to improve the units’ takeaways and determine if they are sustainable going forward.

The first piece examined the Texans' 17 interceptions (8th most in NFL) and concluded that Smith’s schematics were responsible for just three interceptions all season. Evidence was also found pointing towards Houston not being able to sustain their impressive interceptions, unless the coaching staff adapts and gets out of their comfort zone (here's how they can do that).

The next category of takeaways to analyze are fumbles, which can be even more volatile and difficult to predict than interceptions - so I admit I won’t bat 1.000 on my findings. That being said, we know for certainty there are two phases to a fumble - forcing them and recovering them.

The Anatomy of Fumbles

Houston forced 16 fumbles in 2021, good for a top 10 ranking at 8th place in the NFL. However, Houston recovered just eight fumbles, a fairly average ranking that places them at 17th in the league. This means Houston’s “fumble recovery percentage” - which I manually calculated by dividing fumbles recovered (8) by fumbles forced (16) - is 50% which ranks 27th in the NFL.

Fumble Recovery % among NFL Defenses in 2021 (1).png

If the Texans can continue to force fumbles at a top 10 rate - we’ll get to why or why not they may be able to do this - then I believe their “fumble recovery percentage” could have slight positive regression and increase in 2022.

I want to reiterate that I make this hypothesis with minimal certainty because the nature of recovering a bouncing football that is irregularly shaped is incredibly unpredictable. My mind can’t even begin to fathom the physics involved with figuring out how to coach up players to recover fumbles - other than the typical “fall on the ball with your body” rather than scooping it up with your hands.

The other hypothesis I offer is based less around analytics and more around general football theory. I believe defenses that recover more fumbles tend to have their players closer to the ball, thus having the physical opportunity to recover the football. In my opinion, the better NFL defenses are able to get their defenders in the backfield, have them tighter in coverage and thus, put simply, be closer to the ball.

Using my calculated “fumble recovery percentage” for all 32 NFL teams and comparing it to defenses’ points allowed per game, we see some correlation to back up my theory. Of the top 10 teams in “fumble recovery percentage”, five of them are also in the top 10 in points allowed per game (Denver, Buffalo, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay) while all but two defenses (Washington and Detroit) are in the top half of the league in points allowed per game.

I acknowledge points allowed per game isn’t the best stat to measure the talent and success of a defense and if I try the same comparison using Football Outsider’s defensive DVOA, I see similar but less accurate trends. Of the top 10 teams in “fumble recovery percentage”, four of them are also in the top 10 in defensive DVOA (Buffalo, Indianapolis, Miami and Tampa Bay), but the other six are all in the bottom half of the league.

It’s difficult to make conclusions from these stats alone but trends can emerge which point us in the right direction regarding knowledge useful for the Texans.

What I find interesting about the three teams that appear in the top 10 in “fumble recovery percentage”, points allowed per game AND defensive DVOA (Buffalo, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay) is that the Bills and Colts utilize a 4-3 base defense like the Texans and all three defenses pride themselves on playing fast.

Most importantly, the Bills and Colts respective defensive coordinators in 2021 - Leslie Frazier and Matt Eberflus - are both Tony Dungy disciples. The Super Bowl champion coach is famous for pioneering the Tampa 2 defense and we know Texans’ Lovie Smith is another Dungy/Tampa 2 aficionado.

The Dungy Defense

My next question becomes, is there a technique or philosophy that Dungy disciples teach their defenses which results in increased fumbles? Through my research I admittedly haven’t found a specific technique that his entire coaching tree has adopted. A philosophy that has been mirrored; however, is about the personnel deployed.

Dungy defenses prioritize athleticism at every position, especially the front seven. Coaching through the 80s and early 2000s, Dungy was ahead of his time and implemented some modern trends we now see at a specific position group.

He prioritized quick linebackers who can race to the football and tackle ball carriers, while being willing to sacrifice size and bulk compared to the stereotypical “old-school” linebacker.

The current Bills' starting linebackers fit the *no pun intended* bill, with Tremaine Edmunds running a 4.54 40 yard dash (89th percentile). Additionally, Matt Milano, albeit only running a 4.67 40YD (he plays much faster than that), is a smaller and lighter linebacker at 6’0, 223lbs.

The Colts follow suit even closer to Dungy’s beliefs, with Darius Leonard measuring in at just 6’2, 234lbs and playing much faster than his listed 4.70 40YD. His running mate, Bobby Okereke is even smaller at 6’1, 239lbs and was clocked at an impressive 4.58 40YD (83rd percentile).