GREEN BAY – Mike Trgovac stammered, shook his head, then decided to quit while he was behind.
“I mean, that ball was out,” the Green Bay Packers defensive line coach said. “We recovered it.”
Pause. “Whether that’s a penalty or not, I mean …”
Pause. “I mean … I don’t know.”
Pause. “We missed one there.”
The play Trgovac was talking about this week – more on why in a moment – had happened during the Packers’ Week 5 loss at Indianapolis last Oct. 7. On a third-and-5 play from the Colts’ 25-yard line early in the second quarter, rookie linebacker Nick Perry had come scot-free from the left side, buried his facemask into quarterback Andrew Luck’s sternum and dislodged the ball from Luck’s grasp.
It was a breathtakingly violent collision – made possible by the fact that no one had blocked Perry, allowing him to build up quite the head of steam – that ended with linebacker D.J. Smith recovering the ball. The Packers, already leading 14-0, were in business at the Indianapolis 17-yard line.
Except referee Walt Coleman threw his flag, and Perry was penalized for unnecessary roughness. The 15-yard call proved costly: The Packers wound up losing possession, then losing the game. Perry ended up losing $15,000 from his next paycheck, the result of a league fine.
It also cost the Packers something that’s been a rarity for them during Mike McCarthy’s tenure: A fumble recovery. Plays like Perry’s have been so few and far between under McCarthy that the Packers head coach, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and everyone on the defensive side of the ball, including Trgovac, are focused on changing things this season – starting with the approach they’re taking to it in organized team activity practices.
During the team’s OTA practice on Tuesday, there was no missing the way the defense went after the ball – even on dropped or incomplete passes. Ballcarriers were swarmed and had their arms attacked in drills, and anytime the ball hit the ground, it was treated as a free ball ripe for recovery.
“You see us going to the ball with a little more intensity, you see everybody poking at the ball, trying to get the ball out,” Capers said. “We’re just trying to get them conditioned mentally. You see us every time the ball is on the ground, you see someone scooping it. We’re treating it like it’s (a live ball) just to condition everybody to get to that ball, scoop the ball and to try to get the mentality of taking the ball away. In four years, we’re No. 1 in interceptions but we aren’t close in caused and recovered fumbles.”
According to former Packers safety Matt Bowen, now a writer for National Football Post and the Chicago Tribune, the every-ball-is-a-live-ball approach in practice was used by ex-Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers have recovered 55 fumbles since 2006, McCarthy’s first season. That’s tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the fewest in the NFL over that time. The Bears, meanwhile, recovered an NFL-best 107 fumbles during that same time frame under Smith, or nearly double the number the Packers did. Interestingly, the three teams that were the best at recovering fumbles since 2006 are the Bears, the Detroit Lions (106) and Minnesota Vikings (95), all of the Packers’ NFC North rivals.
Last season, the Packers forced just eight fumbles, tied for 29th in the 32-team NFL (only Indianapolis and the Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens, with six, were worse), and recovered only four, tied for 28th in the league (only St. Louis, Indianapolis and Kansas City recovered fewer). The New England Patriots led the NFL in both categories with 28 fumbles forced and 20 recovered. (For statistical purposes, not every fumble coughed up by an opponent is considered “forced.”)
In Capers’ previous three years as coordinator, the Packers forced 10 fumbles in 2009 (29th), 14 in 2010 (tied for 11th) and 12 in 2011 (tied for17th). They recovered nine in 2009 (tied for 15th), six in 2010 (tied for 28th) and six in 2011 (tied for 26th).
Over the same period, Capers’ defenses have registered the most interceptions in the NFL (103), and the Packers rank third in the NFL in total takeaways (133) and second turnover differential (plus-65) over that span. Nevertheless, fumbles have proven inexplicably elusive.
That’s why McCarthy told his players in no uncertain terms that they must improve in the fumble department.
“Statistically we have not done very well in the area of creating fumbles. Our rankings speak for themselves,” McCarthy said sternly. “The emphasis is clearly in place and our defensive players are doing a good job of it, but it’s something we’re working through. We need to do a better job, we need to cause more fumbles.”
Inside linebackers coach Winston Moss, who runs the ball security drills at practice, said there haven’t been a lot of additional drills added at this point, but more time is being spent on drills already in place and the 11-on-11 ball-recovery emphasis is having an effect on the players’ mindset. Among the new drills the Packers are doing are a pass-rush drill where defensive players run around a hoop and swipe at a tackling bag with a ball attached, as well as an extra “pursuit-leverage” drill.
“Coach McCarthy has made it a point of emphasis and he’s clearly been able to establish that in his team meeting,” Moss said. “It’s been fun to watch the guys buy in, because obviously they believe in what coach McCarthy is talking about. It’s great to be running around in practice and doing some good stuff, but it would be something to see from a stats standpoint our numbers jump to where they’re in the top tier of the NFL.”
The primary focus is on creating fumbles where Perry did, with hits on the quarterback. Both McCarthy and Capers, in separate interviews, cited a statistic that 48 percent of all fumbles caused in the NFL are done so on the quarterback. Which, of course, creates another statistical conundrum: How can a team so effective at getting to the quarterback not force more fumbles upon arrival?
Under Capers, the Packers registered 37 sacks in 2009 (tied for 11th), 47 in 2010 (tied for second), 29 in 2011 (tied for 27th) and 47 last year (fourth). That’s 160 sacks in four years, which should have led to more fumbles than they have.
“You would think with our style of play – we moved back into the top 5 in sacks – you’d think that as many shots as we get on quarterbacks, we’d get the ball out. And we’re trying,” Capers said. “I’ll say this: Throughout my career, and even here, when we’ve put an emphasis on something, when we’ve said, ‘All right guys, this is a point of emphasis,’ we’ve improved.”
That is true. Under McCarthy, when penalties were an issue, the Packers went from one of the league’s most-penalized teams to one of the least. When special teams was a disaster, McCarthy and coordinator Shawn Slocum built one of the league’s best units. And when missed tackles were an epidemic on defense in 2011, the coaches demanded improved tackling – and it happened.
Whether that happens with fumbles remains to be seen. (Grantland’s Bill Barnwell has pointed out repeatedly that fumble recoveries are largely random, but that doesn’t apply to forcing them.) There is no question, though, that the Packers have put their minds to it. And while they will likely miss Charles Woodson in this area – Woodson forced 11 of the Packers’ 44 fumbles the past four years – they believe the commitment will lead to improvement.
“We’re planning for this thing to carry out in training camp and during the regular-season practices. Obviously, we need to get it in our mind first that this is what we’re going to do from now on,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “Hopefully, the guys in here, the players and talent in here – if guys set their mind to it, there’s no doubt in my mind we can do it.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.