High and Tight: Backs Run With Fundamentals

No team gives the ball away less than the Green Bay Packers. For their running backs, ball security is just another day at the office. Matt Tevsh has the story of how this group has become the top non-fumbling team in the NFL.

Like a pitcher in the late innings of a no-hitter, the Packers' running backs would almost prefer to keep their unblemished performance on the down-low. Just keep it to themselves. Or at least keep it a secret until the season is over.

"We kind of don't too much talk about it," said Brandon Jackson.

With just one regular-season game remaining in Arizona on Sunday, Jackson and his running back-mates are pursuing their own kind of perfection. On 345 carries over 15 games this season, they have yet to lose a fumble, a remarkable feat considering today's NFL defenses are conditioned to strip the football.

"Ball security is a must," said Jackson. "If you want to play in this system, you've got to protect the ball."

Five Packers running backs (including DeShawn Wynn on injured reserve and fullback John Kuhn) have combined to put together the impressive streak. Starter Ryan Grant has been the workhorse of the bunch with no fumbles in 271 carries this season (almost 79 percent of the team's carries among running backs). Grant's streak actually extends to 280 consecutive rushes dating to last year.

The Buccaneers' Cadillac Williams (15 games played, 14 starts) is the only other primary running back in the league without a fumble this year, but he has carried only 191 times.

The Packers pound home ball security perhaps more than any team in the league. Every practice they run a drill, led by assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Winston Moss, that focuses on ball security. In it, offensive skill players go up against two defenders who try to strip the ball. When and if the skill player breaks free, he must run through a "gauntlet" of offensive and defensive lineman attempting to strip the ball.

"That's one big reason right there," said running back Ahman Green, "because when you work on it, the basic fundamentals, and that's what we do with (running backs coach) Edgar (Bennett), running through the gauntlet, doing that stuff with Coach Moss, all that stuff keeps you aware of what's important, and how to hold the ball, and what to do if they're coming for the ball, just like on Monday night with (Bears linebacker Hunter) Hillenmeyer poking the ball out with A.D. (Vikings running back Adrian Peterson). That's what they do, sometimes they get you and they try to hold you up for a little bit and jab at it."

Green, a 12-year veteran, has had critics who labeled him a fumbler. During stints with the Seahawks (1998 and 1999) and the Texans (2007 and 2008) he said rarely, if ever, did he work with his teammates on ball security.

In Green Bay, it has been just the opposite. He said that Bennett never misses the chance to preach hanging on to the ball in practice. When the team splits into position groups, even during the regular season, they revert back to training camp drills. That includes securing the ball with two hands while running through the Blaster and its foam "arms" and keeping it high and tight by high-stepping through the ropes.

Ball security is stressed by the Packers, Green says.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"For us," began Green, "we know that until we hit the ground, we need to secure the ball, put two hands on it just to be sure, to be safe. That's what our philosophy is as a running back group. Once we know we're not going anywhere, and we're in amongst five or six opposite-colored jerseys, you put two hands on that ball until you fall to the ground or until you hear the whistle. That's something we point out every day."

Making ball security transfer from practice to game days can be tough for many running backs. Running with two hands on the ball, which sounds good, often is forgotten during live action. Only through repetition have the Packers been able to remain consistent.

"When E.B.'s (Bennett's) always telling you in practice, it kind of runs through your mind when you're running the ball (in the game)," said Jackson. "So, it helps when you're in traffic.

"He always stresses in practice that every time we get a hand-off, we have to have two hands on the ball going through the line of scrimmage."

Even off the field, the running backs are being drilled. When they get together for position group meetings, they watch film of other running backs and how defenses attack them. This has been beneficial in most cases as a tool of what not to do. In Green's case, he has picked up other tips along the way.

"Watching (the Giants') Tiki (Barber) early in my career really making it an emphasis of keeping the ball high and tight," he said. "Other guys do a good job of putting two hands on the ball early in the carry or in the rush until they get past the linebackers. I think (the Falcons') Michael Turner does that a lot until he gets out into space where he's out running and then he comes off the two hands. And that's a good thing when you're late in the game, you have the lead, and you're trying to do a four-minute drive and close out the game. Some guys don't do that because it feels weird to keep two hands on the ball the whole time. It's not natural running, but if you learn how to do it, and learn how to move and juke doing it that way, it's good in certain situations."

Like Barber, Green has become one of the most ball-secure running backs in the league late in his career. Green, 32, rejoined the Packers on Oct. 21, and though he has only 29 carries this season, he has the league's longest active streak without a fumble. Remarkably, he has gone 381 consecutive carries, dating to his previous stint with the Packers.

"I didn't even know that until right now," said Green. "It just comes from discipline and hard work basically. That's one of the things on our "don't" list along with making sure we pick up the blitz to protect the quarterback.

"My thing is I just keep it tight to my body, no matter if I'm running by myself or if I break away from the pack. I have it so tight I can almost feel the air coming out of the ball. I'm squeezing it so hard. But then I get my other hand on top of it when I'm going in the middle just fighting to get to the ground. … You have to constantly remind yourself of it."

Green is the only back in the league with a longer non-fumble streak than Grant, who, it was announced Dec. 18, was named to the USA Football/NFLPA "All-Fundamentals" team. Grant did lose a fumble on a short pass over the middle vs. the Bengals on Sept. 20, but he will be shooting for his second "perfect" season on the ground on Sunday. He also pulled off the feat over the 2007 regular season on 188 carries.

Jackson, likewise, fumbled on a carry earlier this season against the Lions on Oct. 18, but the Packers recovered. He has yet to lose a fumble over three years in the league on 151 carries – not that he is necessarily counting.

"We'll continue to practice it," he said. "Right now, that's what wins ball games."

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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