Any ranking of NFL players should be taken with a grain of salt.
Without knowing the play call – and thus the player’s responsibility – it’s tough for even the best outside evaluators to truly and accurately assess said player’s performance.
Still, it’s mind-boggling to see where the analytics website Pro Football Focus has Bills middle linebacker Preston Brown ranked.
Among 59 graded inside linebackers, PFF has Brown tied for 58th with St. Louis’ James Laurinaitis.
“I’ve heard about that,” Brown said Thursday. “You can't really be critical over somebody's grade. They don't know what I'm supposed to be doing. I mean, I can't sit here and be like ‘oh, I can't believe they've got me so low.' Because they don't know what I'm doing that play. I might be doing it perfectly, but in their eyes, ‘oh, it looks bad.’
“Everybody has a right to their own opinion. If they feel I'm playing bad, that's their opinion. But all I worry about is the guys upstairs.”
Bills coach Rex Ryan’s evaluation of Brown’s play, at least publicly, stands in stark contrast to that of PFF.
“I don't know about their evaluations,” Ryan said. “I would say if they're really critical on him, I think they missed the boat.”
As for Brown’s self-evaluation, he said “I think we wall want to do better than we’re doing, but I don’t think it’s ‘oh, I’m doing so bad.’ We all have plays that we can improve on. … This is just not the year that we all had planned out for ourselves. We’ve got to find ways to get better these last three games, and see what happens from there.”
Brown has played a team-leading 901 of 918 defensive snaps, or 98 percent. He’s second on the team with 95 tackles (Corey Graham has 98), is tied for second with two interceptions (Stephon Gilmore has three) and has a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
“I mean, he’s played extremely well for us,” Ryan said. “I think that’s a tough position to play all those snaps, but he does it.”
As the middle linebacker, Brown is the quarterback of the defense, relaying the defensive calls to his teammates.
“I feel like I'm getting better each week. It's something that -- it takes time,” he said. “It's fun. It's good to be in charge, but we’ve just got to get better communication throughout the whole defense, to make sure those big plays don't keep occurring.”
Brown has an overall grade on PFF of minus -28.2. His performance against the run is ranked 57th out of 59 linebackers, while his coverage grade is 29th and his pass-rush grade is 58th. His overall ranking is also hurt by his minus-2.6 penalty grade, which is the worst in PFF’s rankings of inside linebackers.
Brown has had just two positively graded games this season, and is coming off his worst game of the year, according to PFF, which grades every play of every NFL game.
“It's definitely a disappointment, because it's not what we wanted to have happen. We all had big goals, and things that we wanted to accomplish, and we just didn't do it this year,” Brown said, speaking of the defense as a whole. “We've still got three games to be that defense everybody thought we could be. We've got to go out there and show that we're still a good defense. We can't continue to have the same things happen.”
The change from the 4-3 defense run last year under Jim Schwartz to Ryan’s scheme this year – and the Bills’ struggle to adapt – has been a season-long storyline.
Brown chose his words carefully Thursday when asked how well he thinks Ryan’s defense suits him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a difference. Coming into the league and running a certain defense, you kind of get used to it. Then you've got to shift over to a new year. It's a growing process for everybody in the locker room, so it was going to take some time.
“But we just never got our flow how we wanted it to go. It was always good one game, all right one game, bad game. We just never racked up good games.”
In Brown’s first four games, he made 36 tackles and had both of his interceptions, along with his forced fumble and fumble recovery. He’s failed to record double digits in tackles since Week Four, and also doesn’t have any big plays – defensed as a sack, interception, or forced or recovered fumble – since Week Three.
“The ball hasn't come my way lately,” he said. “At the beginning of the year, it was just bouncing my way a lot. … But I mean, that's how football goes. Sometimes it just doesn't come your way. A lot lately, I've been up at the line of scrimmage. It's just different. So you can't really get everywhere.”
Brown’s tackle total differs slightly between statistics kept by the Bills and the NFL, with the league crediting him with 98. That ranks 11th among more than 1,300 players with at least one tackle in the league this season.
It’s the quality of Brown’s tackles, however, that have hurt his grade, according to PFF. His 6.1-percent “stop” rate ranks 46th out of 59 linebackers, with a stop being defined as a tackle that prevents the offense from achieving 40 percent of the required yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on both third and fourth downs. For example, if a tackle is made after a 4-yard gain on first and 10 that would not be a stop. A tackle after a 3-yard gain on first and 10, however, would be.
To his credit, Brown has not missed many tackles, with PFF charging him with just nine on the season. In coverage, he’s given up 30 catches on 36 targets for 297 yards, but no touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks have a 77.0 rating when throwing at him, and he’s allowing just 0.71 yards per coverage snap, which ranks eighth among inside linebackers.
Brown has nine pressures (six hurries, three quarterback hits) in 103 pass-rush attempts, according to PFF, which ranks 45th among inside linebackers.
“We want better success out of those plays, of course,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to improve on throughout these next three games and heading into next year, so we’ve got to keep working.”
Brown has been limited in practice the past two days because of a hamstring injury, but Ryan expects him to be able to play Sunday in Washington as the Bills hope to keep their slim playoff hopes afloat.
“He was able to do a little more today,” Ryan said after Thursday’s practice. “Obviously, it would be a big loss if he can't play."