GREEN BAY – The way training camp started, it wouldn’t have been too far-fetched to wonder if the Green Bay Packers were going to lead the league in running-back fumbles.
In their first eight practices, Ty Montgomery coughed it up twice, rookie Aaron Jones coughed it up twice and fullback Aaron Ripkowski and rookie free agent William Stanback coughed it up once each.
It was not a good start for a team with a largely undefined backfield.
Nine games into the 2017 season, any concerns the Packers had have been eased by the fact the running backs have not fumbled once, not even one the Packers recovered.
Montgomery has 94 touches without a fumble (71 runs, 23 catches), Jones has 78 (70 runs, eight catches), rookie Jamaal Williams has 36 (31 carries and five catches) and Ripkowski has nine (four runs, five catches).
The most remarkable aspect of the 217 clean touches is that Jones and Williams are rookies, both of whom are primary targets for defenses who want to show them the difference between the NFL and the college game.
Of the 50 top rushers in the NFC and 50 top rushers in the AFC, there are 18 rookie running backs with 25 or more carries. Only four have not put the ball on the ground this season and Jones and Williams are two of them (Philadelphia’s Corey Clement and Seattle’s Chris Carson are the others).
Among those who have fumbled multiple times are Chicago’s Tarik Cohen (three, two lost), Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey (two, one lost), Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon (two, one lost) and the New York Giants’ Wayne Gallman (two, one lost).
Among those who have lost a fumble are New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, Houston’s D’Onta Foreman and the New York Jets’ Elijah McGuire.
There’s a long way to go in the season and it’s possible the Packers have just been riding a wave of good fortune, but if the three backs they selected in the 2017 draft turn out to be as reliable as they have been in the pros and college, their chances to survive without quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be significantly better.
In the coming weeks, even with Jones (MCL tear) and Montgomery (ribs) sidelined, the running game is going to be leaned upon heavily. It means Williams and Devante Mays are going to shoulder a lot of responsibility in the toughest of conditions.
“I’ve always been a protection dude, ball security all the time,” said Williams, who lost two fumbles in 560 carries at BYU. “Even when I got here coach had to help me learn to stop running with two hands on the ball going up to the line.
“I’m just used to holding the ball and making sure nobody gets it off me and making moves off that.”
Mays insists he’s the same way.
In his two years of Division I football at Utah State, he carried 202 times without a fumble. He did not cough the ball up in camp or the exhibition games, but will be facing a whole new animal when he gets his first NFL carries Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
“In high school, my coach always emphasized holding the ball high and tight,” Mays said. “That’s what he said, ‘High and tight’. So, I just got used to holding it and carrying it (like that).
“In traffic, I would always put two hands on it. I always try, if someone is around me, I try to run over guys so I would put two hands over the ball when I tried to run them over.”
The Packers stress ball security daily and put the backs through multiple drills to make sure they are holding onto the ball correctly. But they are also interested in having the kind of rushing success Jones (five fumbles in 658 carries at UTEP, none in his final two years) did before he got hurt (5.3 yards per carry average).
As counterintuitive as it might seem, running backs coach Ben Sirmans had to stress to the rookies, Williams in particular, that there are more yards to be made holding the ball with one arm than with two. Jones was a natural at securing the ball, but Williams and Mays have been extremely protective.
“In traffic, you do want to have two hands on the ball,” Sirmans said. “The thing that I was encouraging him (Williams) was initially when he got the ball, particularly early in the year, he ran with it with two hands on it even before he got to the line of scrimmage, which hinders your ability to make cuts a little bit and to be more explosive.
“And it also puts you in a four-minute frame of mind, which as you know in four-minute (offense) you’re a lot more conservative as a ball carrier because that’s all you’re worried about.”
Williams, a fourth-round selection and the first of the three backs to be drafted, looked like a different guy when he played against Chicago last week than the one who averaged 3.09 yards per carry early in the season. He injured his knee in Week 4 and left the door open for Jones to become the primary runner, carrying just twice in the four weeks prior to the Bears game.
Running with a lot more force and abandon, Williams ground out 67 yards on 20 carries against a Bears defense focused on stopping the run. Now that he’s the starter, he’s going to have to be productive and trustworthy, which he thinks he’s more equipped to do at this point in the season.
“I feel like I just know our running scheme a lot better than I did before,” Williams said. “Most people think running the ball is just instinctive and stuff, but most of the time you just have to make sure you make your blockers right.”
The 5-10, 230-pound Mays, a seventh-round pick, is still untested, but he’s the most physical of the three rookies and could provide an option as the weather turns ugly and the Packers continue to take as much pressure as possible off Hundley.
He said he probably won’t take two arms off the ball because he’s an inside runner and his goal is to punish defenders.
“Hard-nosed, physical — I’m an old-school back, I’d say,” Mays said. “I like contact. When I was growing up, I used to watch film of guys like Earl Campbell — some of those guys that would just run over people. But I also could outrun guys, too.
“Speed is good, too, but I think I’m a power guy. Just brute force. Just running people over.”
Which is just fine with the Packers, as long as he holds onto the ball.