A Dangerous Trend

Chad Greenway tied for the NFL in defensive fumble recoveries. If a disturbing trend that has developed this season and been on full display in the playoffs continues, Greenway and other defenders may find the opportunities to cause and recover fumbles to be much easier.

Over the final few weeks of the regular season and, more specifically, in the first two weeks of the playoffs, defensive coaches have been given a glimpse of the future. Most coaching innovations are the result of seeing things that, at first glance, look like they're wrong.

There was a time when a defender's only job was to tackle the player with the ball. That would evolve into teams practicing the art of ripping the ball away from an offensive player or punching at the ball to drive it loose. As a result, the game changed. When a quarterback is about to get sacked, you rarely see a defender simply lower his head and deliver a hit. You typically see him sweep his arm around the quarterback's throwing arm in hopes of dislodging the ball and creating a turnover. Why? It is now something defensive coaches teach players to do. We have a growing trend that should have defensive coaches salivating about their plans for the future.

The art of forcing the fumble is nothing new. How often have you heard coaches or commentators complaining that a player was carrying the ball "like a loaf of bread." It made it easy to knock the ball loose and players became adept at that particular skill. As a result, players went to great lengths to not get the reputation as a fumbler. Drills were devised by teams with the expressed intent of forcing runners to keep the ball close to the body so defenders trying to wrench the ball free couldn't succeed.

Players like Tiki Barber went so far as to completely revamp their running styles to adjust to getting the reputation of being a fumbler. Barber had fumbling problems and, once that word got out, defenders would try to strip the ball at every opportunity. As a result, Barber changed his running style to keep the ball tucked almost under his chin as a he ran to avoid leaving himself exposed to strips.

That philosophy has apparently changed, especially in the 2007 season. While it has always been known that forward progress pertains to where the ball is when a play is whistled dead that is the spot where it is marked. We've seen players reach the ball out for the first down marker or an end zone pylon, but only recently have we seen become such a hazard.

In their final win of the 2007 season, the Vikings salted the game away with such a move. Robert Ferguson was going to be tackled about a yard short of a first down late in the fourth quarter and he flashed the ball out in front of him past the line marker – which the side judge saw and dutifully marked. Two games later, Chester Taylor tries the same sort of maneuver on the opening drive of the Broncos game, only to have the ball come loose and be ruled a fumble out of the end zone.

Perhaps those instances brought the matter to more public attention for Vikings fans, but in each of the eight playoff games played over the last two weekends, we've seen similar instances showing up. No less than three plays were challenged this past weekend because, in the process of reaching the ball out, it was jarred loose or the opposing coach believed the player was stopped before extending the ball. The Chargers may not have beaten the Titans if not for LaDainian Tomlinson reaching the ball over the goal line after being stoned on a dive over the top.

Much like touchdown celebration dances, the practice of exposing the ball to gain an extra yard or two is becoming rampant. With only three games left in the season, don't be surprised to see a half-dozen of these types of plays, as offensive players stretch out with the ball to gain an extra yard or two or put the ball over a first down marker or the goal line.

For every action, there must be a reaction and the next big defensive trend should be teaching players that arrive late to make a tackle to chart a course in front of the player with the ball in an attempt to swat the ball away or simply grab it away from them. Offensive coaches have taught players from their Pop Warner days to protect the ball when they're going to get tackled, but it would seem that in the heat of the battle, players have forgotten this time-honored rule.

Don't be stunned to see many more fumble calls next year. While fans simply watch games for the enjoyment of it or to cheer for their team of choice, coaches watch games in a completely different manner. They see the little things that blockers do or looks that offenses give their opponents and if you think they haven't noticed the frightening regularity of offensive players putting the ball at risk by sticking it out an extra couple of feet at the end of plays, you're sadly mistaken.

Right now, defensive coaches throughout the league are already strategizing about how to take advantage of this new opportunity to create turnovers. If the offense is going to put the ball in jeopardy on a consistent basis, you can bet that defenders are going to come up with a counter-attack to make them pay for it. While it might add to the excitement of the game to see a player make a big effort with a dive for the pylon, the reality is that, once scouted, coaches will know what players have a propensity for doing that and react accordingly.

This is a trend that likely won't last because, if enough players turn the ball over like Taylor did in the opening drive against the Broncos, they'll start reinforcing the idea that you don't hold the ball out like a loaf of bread. If they do, look for more turnovers than touchdowns to be the result.

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