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WITH RULES CLOSING IN AROUND THEM, DEFENDERS ARE RESORTING TO THE KNOCK-THE-BALL-OUT BLOW
The shouts came ever louder, and Bills running back Fred Jackson looked across the line of scrimmage. His team was driving against the Ravens at the end of regulation last October, tired but alive, with a chance to tie and force overtime (which they did, before losing). Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs was barking incessantly at Jackson, "I'm gonna get that ball from you! I'm gonna get it! You better protect that ball!"
Ten months later Suggs sat at his locker at the Ravens' practice facility and laughed at the memory as a small army of free agents and low draft picks cluttered the locker room. "You want to get guys thinking about putting the ball on the ground," says Suggs. "If they're thinking about fumbling, they're going to fumble. Guys are pretty good in this league, but some of them will take the bait."
Think of defense as a financial market. Tackling skills are down. Big hits are trending that way. Ball stripping is way up. "They've eliminated the big hits," says Cleveland cornerback Sheldon Brown. "You've got to find other ways of creating turnovers." Adds Ravens coach John Harbaugh, "We've done an analysis of what causes fumbles. By far the most common thing is jarring hits. Put a guy's lights out, he drops the ball. It's good that there are rules against that now."
Whether by concussive hits or stripping, there is little doubt that turnovers swing games. "That's what coaches keep telling us," says New England safety Patrick Chung. "Win the turnover battle, win the game." The supporting analytics are among the most compelling in the sport. A year ago the top three teams in turnover margin were the Patriots (plus 1.6 per game), who finished 14--2 in the regular season; the Packers (plus 0.8), who won the Super Bowl; and the Steelers (plus 0.7), who lost in the Super Bowl.
In 2010 nine of the 12 playoff teams had positive turnover margins. The three who didn't—the Colts, Saints and Seahawks—won a combined single playoff game. In '09, 10 of the 12 playoff teams had positive turnover margins, and the Super Bowl--champion Saints were a plus 0.9, second to the Packers in the NFL. "We really emphasized stripping in New Orleans," says former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland. "We would do walk-through drills and talk about how to approach the ballcarrier to dislodge the ball."
Stripping is both a physical skill and an instinctive art. Fumbles are forced not only when a defender drives his helmet into the ball at full speed but also when a defender pokes or swings it loose from behind with almost no contact at all. They are forced when the first arrival keeps a ballcarrier on his feet (or the ballcarrier struggles to stay up) and teammates attack the ball. They are forced when a quarterback dangles the ball behind him, cocking to deliver a pass. "At that point," says Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, "they're doing anything they can to tomahawk and break your hand and get you to drop the ball."
Saints safety Roman Harper, who had six forced fumbles in 2010 (tied with Pittsburgh's James Harrison for second-most in the league), says, "Obviously, the first thing is to secure the tackle and wrap up. But you do your homework and you put things in the back of your mind. Does a guy let the ball get away from his body when he cuts? Does he try to stay up too long and fight for extra yards? And then you react when you're out there."
The acknowledged king of the strip is cornerback Charles Woodson, the Packers' 14-year veteran who has forced 27 fumbles in his career (and who, while with the Raiders, was the instigator of perhaps the most influential strip in league history, the shot on Tom Brady in the January 2002 playoffs in what has become known as the Tuck Rule game). The strip is a risk-reward play; it can result in missed tackles and touchdowns. But Woodson is renowned among his peers for a singular ability to both tackle and strip at the same time. "Incredible ball skills, great athlete," says Barnett, Woodson's teammate from 2006 to '10. "The ball just looks bigger to him."
Ballcarriers, meanwhile, have been forced to recalibrate their techniques to better protect the leather. Browns all-purpose runner Josh Cribbs grabbed a football to demonstrate and held the point almost under his chin, curling his fingers over the top of the ball until the back of his hand was against the NFL logo at the neckline of his jersey front. "When I can feel that logo," said Cribbs, "I know I have the ball in a good place."