Turnovers: Knock on Plastic

Between a ballhawking defense, a smart quarterback and a sound running game that hasn't fumbled away the ball all season, the Packers easily lead the league in turnovers at plus-17. It's a figure the Packers are proud of but not eager to discuss.

Edgar Bennett heard the question, cringed and turned away. He proceeded to knock on a sign outside the Packers' locker room.

"Is that wood," this reporter asked?

"Plastic," Bennett replied.

Asked the same question, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin replied: "You hate to even talk about it, because you don't want to jinx yourself. I'm one of the jinxers of all-time."

The question posed to Bennett and Philbin? How have you guys been so good with turnovers this season?

Through 11 games, the Green Bay Packers lead the NFL in turnover margin at a lofty plus-17. The New Orleans Saints are plus-12, the New England Patriots are plus-10 and nobody else is double-digits in the black. Only the Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears and, curiously, the Detroit Lions, have lost fewer fumbles than the Packers' five. Only Minnesota has thrown fewer interceptions than the Packers' five.

Those 10 giveaways are the fewest in the NFL.

"You've got to give a lot of credit to EB (Bennett, the running backs coach) and Jimmy (Robinson, the receivers coach) and Ben (McAdoo, the tight ends coach) and those guys, the way the guys are carrying the football," Philbin said before the Detroit game. "You've got to give a lot of credit to Tom (Clements, the quarterbacks coach) and the decision-making of the quarterback. You haven't seen a greedy quarterback. It's not that complicated of a game. Say, they've got three guys and you've got one guy, you probably shouldn't throw the ball there."

The turnovers are something that coach Mike McCarthy emphasizes at every practice. After the opening jog-through session, McCarthy hands the reins of the team over to assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Winston Moss. For three minutes every day, Moss runs the ball-security drill. Some days, it's a skill-position player carrying a ball that's attached to a bungee cord, which a defensive player jerks at every few yards. Some days, it's the quarterback flipping the ball to a running back or receiver, who is immediately met by a couple defenders who are trying to rip away the ball.

"It's everybody doing their part," Moss said. "I think what I do is important. I think it's the abilities of the players, I think it's the scheme, I think it's realizing everybody that's involved, how important it is. It's an emphasis; it's been an emphasis since I took over that first year I was here. It's worked out well so far."

When McCarthy took over in 2006, the Packers finished even in turnovers, with an ugly 33 giveaways equaling an impressive 33 takeaways. In 2007, the Packers improved to plus-4 (28 takeaways, 24 giveaways). Despite a 6-10 finish last season, the Packers climbed to plus-7 (28 takeaways, 21 giveaways). So, while the takeaways have stayed relatively steady, the giveaways have dropped every year.

"Absolutely," Moss said when asked if he takes pride in those numbers. "It's important to me. It's something that Coach McCarthy gave me my first year and it's something where I don't want to let him down. I take great pride in it."

Amazingly, the Packers haven't turned it over on any of their 303 carries of the ball. All of the lost fumbles have come on receptions, special teams or sacks.

"You know what? You get what you emphasize, and that's been a constant here," Bennett said after knocking on plastic last week. "We do a number of different things to emphasize that and make it a focus. We just have to continue to do that. We have to continue to carry the ball with the proper fundamentals and just continue to emphasize it."

Asked about Ryan Grant, who at the time had carried the ball 189 times without losing a fumble, Bennett cringed again.

"C'mon!" he said with his typical smile while knocking on plastic yet again.

Bennett's fears of a jinx almost were realized on Thursday. In the fourth quarter, Grant coughed it up in the end zone and the Lions recovered for a touchdown. Replay showed Grant was down, and the Lions got a safety and Grant's streak continued, reaching 209 carries by the end of the game. He is the only player in the top 10 of the NFL in carries who has not lost a fumble.

Aaron Rodgers celebrates after a touchdown vs. Detroit.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
It's a byproduct of hard work for Grant, who did fumble away the ball after a reception against Cincinnati in Week 2. Last season, Grant lost three fumbles on running plays. In 2007, he lost one fumble on a running play during the regular season but two in the playoffs against Seattle.

"Seriously, it just kind of comes down to the emphasis of it as well as guys doing the little things," Bennett said. "Focusing, concentrating on taking care of that part of the game. We know that can directly result in wins and losses. We really do believe that you get what you emphasize, and that's the bottom line. That's something that we've been emphasizing here since Day 1 as far as ball security, the proper way to carry the football, covering the football."

Grant wasn't in much of a mood to talk about his streak after the game on Thursday, considering he was so close to giving up six points against Detroit.

"Ball security's No. 1. You can't do anything without the ball," Grant said. "Before anything else, even before execution, it's ball security. If you can secure the ball, if you look at the numbers in this game, the team that doesn't turn the ball over usually wins."

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers knows all about those turnover numbers. He's thrown five interceptions this season. Three came in the upset loss at Tampa Bay, and he's 1-5 in his career when he has two turnovers.

In 27 career starts, he's thrown 18 interceptions. In two years as the starter at Cal, he threw 13 interceptions. At Butte (Junior) College, he threw four interceptions.

"I don't like throwing interceptions," Rodgers said last week. "We talk a lot about it in the offseason, during the season, training camp we keep track of them. Always like throwing it to our guys a little bit more than the other guys. We've got a good scheme, good through your progressions and I feel like accuracy-wise I've been fairly accurate this year."

Only Brett Favre, with three interceptions, has thrown fewer interceptions than Rodgers this season. Rodgers hasn't been close to throwing an interception in the last three games, a stretch of 120 attempts.

"You try to do the sound things that make sense, that are common-sense football," Philbin said. "Aaron's done a great job of just executing the offense, not forcing the ball into places where it shouldn't go. Then our guys compete hard for the ball."

On the other side of the ball, the Packers' 27 takeaways trail only the Saints' 32. They've forced at least one turnover in every game, including at least three in five games. They're 5-0 in those games.

Last year, it was a ballhawking secondary that paced the Packers' defense. This time, it's all-around playmaking ability. The Packers recovered six fumbles all of last season. They've recovered nine in 11 games this season.

Charles Woodson is responsible for 11 takeaways all by himself, with seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries.

During the Packers' season-saving three-game winning streak, they're plus-7, with nine takeaways and two giveaways.

"We drill it. We do a drill every single day and the guys have bought into it, and we've had early success," Moss said. "When we started with that early success, it carried over. Guys really understand that it helps us win."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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