Avoiding fumbles a point of pride for Packers

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) tries to recover his fumble after being stripped on a scramble against the Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Anthony Barr (55) at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 18, 2016.

GREEN BAY — There were many places your eyes might have looked during the eight seconds in which Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers held the football Sunday afternoon before firing a 5-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Davante Adams.

They may have focused on Rodgers, who maneuvered the pocket until the proper throwing lane appeared. They may have focused on the offensive line, which shielded its quarterback from four pass rushers.

Chances are, your eyes did not focus on the way Rodgers held the football, and in some respects that part of the play is what made coach Mike McCarthy happiest — aside from the touchdown itself.

“Actually the clip you just talked about, we showed it today in the team meeting because you know the emphasis on ball security, because Dallas is outstanding at taking the football away,” McCarthy said earlier this week. “Their takeaway opportunities (are) very high, probably one of the best teams we've seen all year. And then particularly our clip, Aaron's ball-carries throughout that time is outstanding.”

Rodgers’ ability to slide through traffic unencumbered is the perfect summation of another turnover-free streak few people are talking about. Yes, Rodgers completed his eighth consecutive game without an interception when the Packers defeated the New York Giants last weekend, but it’s also been a long time since he or the skill positions players have fumbled either.

Five games to be exact and only once since Week 13.

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“Coach McCarthy talks about it all the time,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “You get what you emphasize and I think our guys understand the fundamentals when we’re talking about protecting the football and what goes into that and being fundamentally sound. They understand that it’s how we practice and the effort that they put into it day in and day out speaks volumes. It certainly creates a habit and that’s really the key.”

The difference from a year ago is startling. In 2015, when the Packers entered the playoffs as a wild-card team, there were 14 fumbles over the final six games of the regular season. Five of them belonged to Rodgers, four belonged to running back James Starks and the other skill-position culprits were backup quarterback Scott Tolzien (one), running back Eddie Lacy (one) and wide receiver Randall Cobb (one).

Of the 14 total fumbles, opponents recovered six of them.

“I think there might be a confidence thing,” said fullback Aaron Ripkowski, who has been a supplemental rusher for the Packers this season. “If somebody drops a ball one time they can keep doing it because they’re over-thinking or worried about it. But you also have to be very cognizant of ball security. You always have to think about when you’re in traffic keep two hands on it. You never know if there’s a guy behind you about to pop it out. You always have to be prepared like someone is ripping the ball away from you.”

This season, as the Packers ripped off six straight wins to capture an NFC North title, the numbers are drastically different. There were only three total fumbles during the regular-season winning streak, just one of which was charged to the offense — Rodgers against the Houston Texans in the snow. The other two were muffed punts by Cobb and defensive back Micah Hyde, both of which the Packers recovered.

The last fumble by a skill position player not named Rodgers took place all the way back in Week 11, when Washington cornerback Josh Norman punched the ball away from tight end Jared Cook.

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“I think we’ve been doing a really good job coaching it up,” Ripkowski said. “Not to say that we’ve done a bad job in the past, but just every day in practice through fundamentals and everything someone is always harping on it to remind us. Because sometimes if you haven’t had a fumble or a turnover your mind kind of gets lax and you forget about it, forget about ball security.”

Ripkowski and many other skill players credited Bennett for ceaseless reminders about technique, pressure points and the importance of not fumbling. As a former running back himself, Bennett has a few ground rules, too: 1) Skill position players are highly discouraged from wearing long sleeves during games — regardless of how cold it gets at Lambeau Field or elsewhere — to avoid the introduction of a slippery surface and 2) skill position players are prohibited from rubbing their arms with Vaseline or other ointments used to stay warm.

“Oh yeah, that’s 100 percent true,” Ripkowski said. “It’s more slick. Also if guys are wearing Vaseline or something of that sort for a coat if it’s cold, it’s more slick. What you want is really just dry skin on the ball, and that really keeps it kind of locked in.”

Added receiver Jeff Janis: “Edgar Bennett's been on us every single day in practice about keeping the ball high and tight, running the ball all the way back, keeping it high, keeping it tight. So yeah, do something like that over and over, it's just going to be ingrained in your head and it's just going to show up in your game.”

The Packers are hoping it shows up one more time this weekend against an aggressive defense. Coordinated by Rod Marinelli, the Dallas Cowboys rank second in the league with 28 forced fumbles, trailing only the Arizona Cardinals (30). When these two teams met in Week 6, the Packers coughed the ball up five times: two by Rodgers, two by then-wide receiver Ty Montgomery and one by wideout Jordy Nelson.

If that script repeats itself, Sunday's outcome will be fairly predictable.

“It takes the whole group,” McCarthy said. “We haven’t turned the ball over, and that’s going to be critical and it’s going to be a huge part of our success on Sunday because the last time these two teams played, I know we were I think minus-3 in the turnover ratio, so holding on to the ball is critical. It’s a technique, it’s an emphasis, and we’re doing a good job of it.”

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