GREEN BAY - The topic was finally broached Monday morning, when Green Bay Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins recognized the disparity and decided it was time to talk about it. So he approached inside linebacker Joe Thomas and, quite candidly, pointed out the startling number of interceptions by linebackers this season.
Through six games, Thomas and his associates have out-pilfered the entire secondary.
“He came up to me and he’s like, ‘Man, y’all been leading the group,’” Thomas said with a laugh. “It’s competition now, man.”
The official statistics arm of the NFL credits the Packers with five interceptions in 2016, a middle-of-the road total when juxtaposed with the other 31 teams. A seeming sixth interception took place against the Dallas Cowboys when a quarterback’s looping fumble was caught on the fly by Thomas. But to the league that was merely a pseudo pick; in the scorebook it’s a fumble recovery.
Either way, the math is convincing: Three of the five verified interceptions belong to linebackers, with Thomas, Blake Martinez and Nick Perry owning one each. And as for the pseudo pick — the one where Thomas double clutched in midair to grab Dak Prescott’s miscue — that was hauled in by a linebacker, too.
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“We talk about the pursuit, cover and finish aspects," Martinez said. "Most of (the interceptions) are us pursuing to the ball, and good things happen when you do that. Balls get tipped and you’ve just got to be able to make the play, make the catch.”
Deepening the peculiarity of this early course is the repetitive manner in which the interceptions were snagged. And just as Martinez mentioned, the crucial element was third-party contact.
Against Jacksonville, when Thomas notched the first interception of his career, the pass from quarterback Blake Bortles pinballed off Rollins and the intended receiver, Marqise Lee, before Thomas swooped in for the catch.
Against Dallas, when Thomas grabbed his pseudo pick, outside linebacker Julius Peppers raked Prescott’s arm to force the floating fumble, which Thomas secured before it hit the ground.
And against Chicago, when Martinez and Perry feasted on a third-string passer, one interception was tipped by safety Morgan Burnett while the other was predicated on outside linebacker Datone Jones slamming quarterback Matt Barkley at the moment of release.
“Hey, I mean, you take what you can get,” Rollins said. “If the linebackers are fortunate to make plays and that stands out, then we’re going to take what we can get. It really doesn’t matter where it’s coming from. The fact that we’re getting takeaways, whether it’s linebacker, corner or D-line, it doesn’t matter. It will all come together when it’s supposed to. But at this point in time yes, the linebackers are doing a great job of getting the ball.”
Still, the origin of the linebacker interceptions is partially counterintuitive. All of their takeaways involved rerouted footballs — two tipped passes, two lofted freebies after quarterback hits — yet the Packers do not practice the tipped ball drill.
“We don’t, actually,” Thomas said. “We just work on catching.”
Accordingly, players attributed the interceptions to ball drills run ad nauseum at the behest of the coaches.
To work their hands, linebackers use the JUGS machine before and after practice, changing the angles to create more realistic scenarios. They catch low passes, high passes and passes off to the side — “Because quarterbacks aren’t going to just throw you the ball,” Martinez said. They even account for wet passes, which involve catching footballs soaked in water and thrown by humans.
In order for the fad to become a trend, Martinez and Co. will need to violate the passing lanes for at least a few more weeks. But for the moment, with what amounts to four interceptions through six games, these linebackers are on pace to become the greediest bunch of thieves defensive coordinator Dom Capers has seen in Green Bay.
Consider the linebacker interception totals from Capers’ tenure:
- 2016 — 4: Martinez, Perry, Thomas (2)*
- 2015 — 2: Matthews, Elliott
- 2014 — 4: Peppers (2), Matthews, Lattimore
- 2013 — 2: Hawk, Neal
- 2012 — 2: Walden (2)
- 2011 — 6: Matthews (3), Francois (2), Smith
- 2010 — 6: Hawk (3), Bishop, Matthews, Chillar
- 2009 — 2: Hawk (2)
* As noted above, the midair catch of a looping fumble by Prescott is technically a fumble recovery
Ahead of Sunday’s game against Atlanta, the linebackers maintain their edge over the secondary, which has only two interceptions this season: one apiece for Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett.
For now, the linebackers are remaining fairly quiet. But if things continue, bragging rights are definitely included.
“We don’t want to jinx ourselves,” Martinez said. “But if at the end of the year we’re ahead, we’ll definitely kind of poke fun towards them.”