Green Bay – The drought since the Green Bay Packers last recovered an opponent’s fumble has reached six games.
Even worse, none of their players has so much as forced a fumble since the second quarter of the fifth game.
Mike Eayrs, the pioneering analytics expert who might know as much about fumbles as any man alive, is hoping a reversal of fortune appears as early as Sunday when the Packers play the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field. Snow is in the forecast.
“We’re going to get in the colder weather, which makes it more difficult to secure the ball,” Eayrs, the Packers’ director of research and development from 2001 until his retirement in 2015, said Thursday. “The ball gets slipperier when the temperature drops.
“A team like Houston coming up here, an indoor team coming outdoors, there might be a whole bunch of opportunities in that game.”
The Packers are tied for 16th in interceptions with eight, including one by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on Monday night in Philadelphia. However, their takeaway total via fumble is three, which exceeds only the two by Tennessee.
Green Bay hasn’t had as few as three in a season since 1995. Since 2006, the Packers rank last in the NFL in opponents’ fumbles recovered with 84. The constants have been coach Mike McCarthy and Winston Moss, his associate head coach for defense and linebackers coach who has run the daily team ball-stripping drill for most of the past 10½ seasons.
In all, opponents have had just eight fumbles, which puts the Packers in 31st place. In the last 30 years their foes always have fumbled at least 16 times with the exception of ’95, when the total was 12.
Why are the Packers especially deficient this year in an area of the game that is an absolute pillar of the winning formula?
In a game decided by players, too many Packers on defense have dropped the ball when it comes to getting the ball out.
It’s awful when Mike Daniels, Nick Perry and Clay Matthews have neither a forced fumble nor recovered one in their statistical line.
It’s sobering that arguably the finest example of a forced fumble wasn’t made by a player on defense. All credit goes to wide receiver Randall Cobb for his textbook strip of Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo as he was returning a fumble by Davante Adams.
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Sacks, according to Eayrs, represent the primary chance for fumbles, especially when they occur from the quarterback’s blind side. Two of the Packers’ three forced fumbles on sacks were by Kyler Fackrell against right tackle Bobby Hart of the Giants, and Julius Peppers against right tackle Doug Free of the Cowboys. The other was scored a team sack when Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott dropped the ball for no apparent reason.
Even though the Packers entered the week tied for seventh in sacks with 28, the ball isn’t coming loose. One conclusion would be the pass rushers either aren’t as violent or not taking enough shots at the ball as they have in past seasons.
Last month, McCarthy implored his rushers to turn every sack chance into a fumble. Peppers, whose six forced fumbles in 2014, counting playoffs, marked the highest total by an individual under McCarthy, has lost a step.
The fact none of the 249 rushes by opposing ball carriers has ended in a fumble is an indictment of every player on defense. The physiological response to a crushing hit is a fumble, but it’d be hard to label this defense as overly physical.
“About one of six fumbles is the result of helmet or shoulder or forearm contact to a secured ball,” Eayrs said. “It’s really hard to blame the ball carrier. It’s like getting hit by a truck.”
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LaDarius Gunter and Clinton-Dix did force fumbles after receptions, but in Gunter’s case the ball bounced out of bounds and on Clinton-Dix’s play it bounced right back to Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson.
“That’s the luck of the draw,” Eayrs said. “Just got to keep working at it. The ball is parabolic. If you want a ball that will bounce true, take up volleyball or basketball.”
In the last six games, the opponents’ only two fumbles had nothing to do with the Packers: a muffed punt return near the sideline by Indianapolis and an errant shotgun snap by Philadelphia.
If you want to see a defense that plays exceptionally hard, watch Dallas as coordinated by Rod Marinelli. Their defensive personnel might be just so-so, but the Packers certainly don’t swarm to the ball like the Cowboys.
“Twenty-one percent of fumbles occur when another player has secured the ball and it’s the second or third player to the ball,” Eayrs said. “Twenty-seven percent occur on execution errors by the offensive and special teams when the opponent has no role in the fumble.”
Part of the reason for the Packers’ modest numbers of hats to the ball can be traced to Dom Capers’ scheme, which has helped the team lead the NFL in interceptions during the McCarthy era.
The Packers aren’t playing quite as much man coverage this year as in the past, but they probably still rank in the top 10. In zone, all players generally face the ball whereas players in man often have their back turned away from the ball.
Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman, recognized as the greatest strip artist of all time, benefited by playing nine years in coach Lovie Smith’s “Tampa-2” zone scheme. The gang-tackling Bears pinned their success on takeaways.
Counting playoffs, Charles Woodson forced five fumbles in both 2009 and ’10. Of the 10, seven were on receptions, two on sacks and one on a rush. The Packers recovered seven, and they led to 27 points.
Cobb, with one, shares the Packers’ lead in forced fumbles with four players on defense. Jake Ryan, Morgan Burnett and Blake Martinez lead the club in tackles but are still looking for their first forced fumble.
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Every off-season, Eayrs would study every fumble in the NFL season and present his findings to the coaches. He closely watches his old team and the league as a whole.
Kansas City and Tampa Bay share the NFL lead in opponents’ fumbles recovered with 11 followed by Denver and New Orleans with 10.
“Al Harris,” Eayrs mentioned the ex-Packers cornerback who now coaches the position for the Chiefs. “He’s a huge believer in (takeaways). Ball extraction is an extremely high priority in their culture. They felt it was one of the fastest ways of turning things around.
“The Buccaneers’ pass rush is extremely formidable. Denver, pass rush. The Saints do it a little different way. Theirs is more of a comprehensive team effort.”
The other critical factor is having players nearby when the ball does come out.
“It’s high-energy, hustling guys,” Eayrs said. “You’re always closing to the ball. One of the great equalizers in football is the guy who plays hard all the way to the whistle.”
Thirty years ago fumbles, especially on sacks, were regarded more as an unpreventable event. The Packers lost 25 in 1985, 24 in ’87 and 21 in ’88. They and many other teams were careless.
Today, position coaches never stop teaching ball-security fundamentals. Wide receivers and quarterbacks used to be prime targets to fumble but the no-tolerance policy includes them, too.
The significance of takeaways in the outcome of games always has been preeminent, but with fewer fumbles the pressure on each one only is magnified.
A December schedule with three games at Lambeau Field and another at Soldier Field more than likely means more fumbles. It’s time the Packers start getting their fair share.