Forcing fumbles an art, not luck
Every team dedicates significant time to practicing how to force fumbles
Charles Tillman, Brian Dawkins and James Harrison are among the current best
Scouting each player's ball-control tendencies can uncover weaknesses
For Kyle Williams and shellshocked San Francisco 49ers fans, it may still feel as though destiny dealt them a cruel blow in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
Williams' fumbled punt return in overtime against the New York Giants will be replayed over and over for years to come -- not to mention in the head of the Niners wide receiver for the rest of his life. Fate isn't always fair.
Fate isn't always fate, either.
Ask Jacquian Williams, the Giants' rookie linebacker who raked the ball from Williams' grasp in the rain at Candlestick Park. Ask New York special teams coordinator Tom Quinn. Or Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Ask anyone in the league. More often than not, there is nothing accidental, serendipitous or karmic about a fumble.
They're schemed for.
Example: The Chicago Bears were in a defensive meeting when tape of yet another of Charles Tillman's trademark highlights played out on the screen. Tillman, the cornerback who just completed his ninth season, was breaking down and sizing up a receiver one-on-one in open space. As the ballcarrier approached, at just the right moment, Tillman's instinctive big-play to-do list kicked in.
Locate arm ... check!
Punch down ... check!
Force fumble ... check!
Ball out. Bears recover. Again.
"Man," a teammate said out loud. "You must enter The Matrix or something. You make it look so easy ... like you're in slow motion."
Tillman, whose 29 forced fumbles since 2003 are by far the most by an NFL defensive back during that span, swears his mind doesn't go all Keanu Reeves when doing what he does better than anyone at his position in the league.
"I don't know, I guess you can say I kind of get in a zone," Tillman said. "But what I'm really doing is looking for that weak spot and going for it."
It's a skill every coach in the NFL would love to see all his players master. There isn't a team in the league -- or football coach at any level, for that matter -- that doesn't stress the correlation of giveaway-takeaway ratio to wins and losses. Every possession is precious.
Jon Gruden sums it up best: "When you hold the football in your hand, you hold the hopes and the dreams of an entire organization."
Those would include, obviously, Super Bowl dreams.
Or in Williams' case, Super Bowl nightmares.
That's why every coaching staff in every organization blocks time each day to do drills specific to dashing those dreams and getting into a habit of making the type of nuisance, well-timed or perfectly marked hit that can change a game. It's practically become an art form, with Tillman one of a handful of NFL players who have used running backs, wideouts and tight ends as their personal canvases to become Picassos when it comes to getting the football on the ground.
James Harrison, Brian Dawkins and Charles Woodson are among the present-day masters, as well. So are some of the game's best pass-rushers -- Dwight Freeney, Julius Peppers and Robert Mathis, to name a few -- who have become deft when it comes not only to sacking the quarterback but swiping the ball from the quarterback's arm.
For a defensive coach, such plays are suitable for framing; and reliving over and over in the meeting and study rooms.
"The emphasis for a defense will always be on the initial hit," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But when you get there, you can do much more than that and you have to talk about it. We do that constantly."
"I think the art is no different than the art of properly catching a football or blocking or tackling, but I do know this: [fumbles] are not going to come if you're not emphasizing it or working on it daily," New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And even if you are emphasizing it, coaching it and practicing it daily, there's no immediate guarantee when they're going to come. What we do know is they're not going to come if making them happen is not a focal point."
Watch practice and watch defensive players pawing at the football. Even in non-contact 7-on-7 passing drills, if the ball is on the ground, it's a five-alarm call for defenders to swarm. In common 11-on-11, when a running back breaks into the secondary and races 40 or 50 yards downfield, defensive players often run after him taking swipes at the ball, accentuating their emphasis while forcing the carrier to keep the ball snug.
Most teams have designated segments in practice focused on fumbles -- causing them and preventing them -- in both open-field situations and in traffic between the tackles. There are tackling dummies now that have protruding arms to approximate a quarterback's arm and serve as a target.
"Each group has a different drill they work on every practice, no question," Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "But you can work on all the drills and individual technique you want to, but I think forcing turnovers comes from everybody hustling to the ball, plus the combination of good tackling, wrapping up and getting your arms around the ballcarrier."
Ganging up on the guy with the ball is a good place to start. So many options are available when a defender arrives at the pile.
"The key is just to get a hand on the football," Green Bay defensive tackle B.J. Raji said.
After that, anything can happen.
"If the initial guy that's making the proper tackle is unable to [go after the ball], then it's the second or third guy," Payton said. "I just think the last six or seven years, the way you see defenses taking the ball away is much different than they did years ago."
Check out, for example, how defenders are giving chase on special teams. Instead of laying out for the tackle, they're aiming a round-house at the ball.
"Look at return guys around the league; a lot of them are defensive players that aren't used to carrying the ball all the time," San Diego Chargers special teams coach Rich Bisaccia said. "And some of these guys are moving at such great speed, when they stick that foot in the ground to change direction, their arms are just naturally going to come away from their body."
The simple laws of gravity mean open season on the ball.
Same goes for gang-tackle scenes.
"There are so many situations where a runner is in a vulnerable position to be able to attack the ball," San Francisco 49ers linebacker coach Jim Leavitt said. "It forces backs and receivers to be on top of their game that much more because those guys are getting hit from one side to another, so sometimes they have to raise that ball for balance. Securing that ball every second is difficult. And the strength of the hands of some of the guys on defense going after that ball is unbelievable."
Imagine the poking, punching and prodding that goes on in that scrum.
"I've got the broken hands and fingers to prove it," Dawkins said.
Dawkins, the 16-year pro with the Denver Broncos, has forced 28 fumbles in his career. He's caused them in the open field, in close quarters and with blindside strikes on the quarterback. Most, he believes, have come on initial hits.
A Pro Bowler eight times, Dawkins is a sure and confident tackler, so his first goal is always to get the runner on the ground.
"But when you see that ball exposed -- even a little bit; even for a fraction of a second -- why not go for the tackle and the ball?" Dawkins asked.
In other words, a two-for-one.
"That's my mindset," he said. "You don't just scout schemes, you scout guys, so you're looking at the ball-security of the players. Some running backs, well, when they run they use the ball as balance, so when they cut that ball swings away from their arms for balance. Those guys are prime targets."
According to New York wide receiver Devin Thomas, the Giants did enough scouting on the Niners' Williams to know that he had a history of concussions, therefore they targeted throughout the game.
"He's had a lot of concussions," Thomas told the Newark Star-Ledger. "We were just like, 'We gotta put a hit on that guy.' ... [Tyler] Sash did a great job hitting him early and he looked kind of dazed when he got up. I feel like that made a difference and he coughed it up."
Hat on ball is a bull's-eye.
Hand on ball is, too.
"When you have a quarterback like, say, Michael Vick, who carries it kind of loose, everybody knows that," ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Herm Edwards said. "Any quarterback who carries it low, you tell your guys, 'Go for the arm!' Or a running back who carries it away from his body, you note that in film study and show them when his tendency shows for that ball to not be so high and tight."
Ballcarriers are taught the "three points of pressure" in Pop Warner for a reason. Folding three fingers over the nose of the ball (one point), tucking the outside of the ball against the forearm (two points) and pressing the ball against the ribcage (three points) is the most tried and true coaching method for ball security.
But those three points of pressure can be compromised when a 200-pound third-down back meets a 300-pound lineman in the hole or a 260-pound linebacker at full speed in the flat.
"Back in the old days, when those guys hit people, they were trying to run through them and jar the ball loose," said Edwards, who came into the league as a rookie in '77. "Now, with the game being so specialized and so many different people touching the ball, hey, there are guys that you know carry it loose, that aren't that strong, that are littler guys who might tend to carry it up top. Well, they're the ones subject to guys going after the strip."
Which brings us back to Tillman.
He forced a career-high six fumbles in 2009. He caused four in each of three other seasons, three in another and at least one in every season since joining the Bears as a second-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette in 2003.
"It's a radar for knocking the ball out," Smith gushed. "It's just a special gift he has."
So special that Smith has a highlight reel he shows his players of fumbles forced by Tillman -- and not during actual games. The reel Smith prefers is from one of Tillman's training camps, when he forced at least one fumble during 15 consecutive practices, proof positive that he's working to master his craft.
Talk about a teachable moment.
The fact that Tillman does it so often in games when everybody knows he's trying to do it is further testament to his unique skill. So is the fact Tillman has the green light from Smith to go for the fumble vs. the sure tackle.
"I just look for the weak spot," Tillman said. "I don't care if you have two arms covering it or the four, five, six points of pressure, however many there are. There's always a weak spot with the way the guy is carrying the ball. I feel like 70 percent of the time I can get it out if I hit it exactly where that weak spot is."
Tillman shared his secret.
"The first mistake is everybody tries to rip the ball out," he said. "That works, but I don't think it works as well as meeting force with force. To me, when a guy is running, I go with the punch. And while a lot of guys punch up, I think that helps secure the ball.
"So I punch down."
The downward motion has become a staple of rush ends and outside linebackers. That really started when the game began to morph into a combination of speed and strength, with Lawrence Taylor off the edge being a pretty rubicon.
Think about Taylor coming off the edge. Or Bruce Smith. Or Derrick Thomas. Often, they didn't even go for the quarterback's body. Just his arm.
Thomas, like all great ones, did his homework on the way to 126 1/2 sacks from his right defensive spot for the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Once in a game, he was lining up at that right defensive end spot next to one of our big defensive tackles, Joe Phillips," recalled Marty Schottenheimer, who coached Thomas for 10 seasons. "Derrick had his hand on the ground, but he kept reaching over at Phillips and taking swats at his hand. He wanted Phillips to back up because he had locked in on a key with the way the quarterback flinched his bottom hand under center right before the snap."
With that key came a cue for a head start to the hand ... and the ball. Or as Tillman might say, a weak spot.
"I know I'm not the hitter that Lance Briggs or Brian Urlacher or some other guys might be," Tillman said. "So I have to try something a little different. Something outside the box."
Lovie Smith wishes he could box or bottle it for the rest of his defense.
"If we knew exactly what he was doing," he said, "we'd have all our defensive players doing it."
In the meantime, they're trying to do it. Everybody is. All the time.
Sometimes the timing ends up Super.