Can Packers’ Defenders Learn How to Force Fumbles?
Previously, I examined the Green Bay Packers interception statistics over the past 11 years. From 2007 through 2011, they were consistently among the league leaders. From 2012 through 2017, however, they’ve almost always been in the bottom half of the league rankings.
What about the other half of the turnover equation? From a fan’s perspective, do you think the Packers have recovered more fumbles that most teams, about average, or fewer? Or are such statistics such a small sampling, or so random, that such rankings are meaningless?
Here are the fumble turnover numbers, starting with 2009, when Dom Capers took over as defensive coordinator for Green Bay: 6, 10, 8, 7, 5, 11, 9, 6, 8, and 11 in 2017. This does constitute a pattern, for the corresponding league rankings were (counting ties): 16th, 24th, 26th, 28th, 10th, 18th, 29th, 19th, and 7th.
Never finishing higher than seventh in nine years, and usually finishing in the bottom half of the rankings is a poor performance for a team that went on to the playoffs every year but one of those.
A Teachable Skill
My feeling is that causing and recovering fumbles is largely a matter of coaching. My sense is that about 40 percent of fumbles are caused by a defender purposefully poking or swiping the ball free, about 30 percent are caused by very hard hits, and about 30 percent are due to the ball carrier’s failure to protect the ball. If so, the major cause of fumbles can be taught – in fact it needs to be taught. To a lesser extent, hard hits, especially those aimed at where the ball is held, can be learned through instruction.
I believe that teams that rank high year after year in causing fumbles do so by design, not accident. Certain players diligently try to pry balls loose. It’s an especially good technique for defenders arriving as an opponent is being gang-tackled.
I’ve previously cited the Bears’ Charles Tillman as being a master at causing fumbles. In a 13-year career that ended in 2015, he is credited with 44 forced fumbles – I hate to think of how many came against the Packers.
Forced fumbles isn’t an official NFL statistic, though I’ve seen Robert Mathis, who played for the Colts from 2003 to 2016, credited as having most career forced fumbles, 54. Though only a fifth-round draft choice, Mathis also ranks high among the top 20 career sack leaders, with 123. His specialty was strip-sacks – in his final game he recorded his 47th.
Can Pettine Make a Difference?
The only Green Bay players who come to mind over the past decade as possessing expertise at forcing fumbles are Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers – and both honed those skills with other teams and coaching staffs.
While Mike Pettine’s defenses were just average in snaring interceptions, they were well above average in recovering fumbles. Here is how well Pettine’s New York Jets did in his four years as defensive coordinator there: 2009, 14 (4th best); 2010, 18 (2nd); 2011, 12 (tied for 4th); and 2012, 12 (tied for 8th).
This is yet another area of the game in which Packers fans can this season compare and contrast the old and the new defensive coordinators.