The Bears have forced six turnovers in their first two games, which is tied for No. 2 in the league, registering three fumble recoveries and three interceptions in a pair of victories. Chicago tied for the NFL lead with 21 forced fumbles in ’09. For a team that prides itself on taking care of the ball like the Packers do, Monday night’s game will bring a formidable challenge.
“You must have been in our meeting because the thing we said is you are on the road, and every possession counts in a game like this,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “The only way you can take advantage of a possession is by holding on to the football. We’re not sitting here saying we are going to score on 12 possessions if we have the ball 12 times, which is about the number you get in an NFL game, but getting first downs, utilizing the kicking game, field position, all of those things are going to be important.
“The No. 1 thing we told our guys was hang on to the ball. They do a good job of gang-tackling, they do a good job stripping the ball, so fundamentally we have to counter that with the way we teach ball protection and ball security.”
The fundamental work starts during practice, with the Packers dedicating a period of every one to ball security. The drill has a ball-carrier trying to run through a gauntlet of two other players that are trying to do their best to rip the ball away.
“I don’t know that we’ve emphasized it near to the extent anywhere else I have been than we do here, and that’s a good thing,” said wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson, who was on the coaching staff of four other NFL teams before coming to Green Bay in 2006. “We talk about it every day and we work on it every day, and usually the things that you work on and pinpoint and overemphasize, those are the things that hopefully you get better at.
“When you have certain players that do a great job of that, which (the Bears) do, then certainly there is maybe a heightened alert, so to speak. But it is a daily, day-in and day-out thing for us. We talk about it constantly.”
That focus during Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure has paid dividends every season. During 2005, the year before McCarthy took over, the Packers ranked dead last in the league with 45 giveaways. Green Bay cut that number to 33 in McCarthy’s first season (No. 26 in the league), before trimming the giveaway number to 24 (tied for No. 7) in 2007 and 21 (tied for No. 8) in 2008. In 2009, the Packers set a franchise record with just 16 giveaways (eight interceptions and eight fumbles), with one of those coming on a kickoff return.
That stinginess has translated into victories too, with the Packers winning 39 of their last 43 games in which they didn’t commit a turnover.
“We do spend an awful lot of time on it, and we back it up with some practice time on the field,” Philbin said. “Our defense, practicing against them, they do an excellent job as we all know taking the ball away, whether it is in the passing game or they are stripping it from us. We attempt to emphasize it with our defensive ‘look’ team, even when it is not our own guys, ‘Hey, guys, knock the ball loose if you can.’ So we give them authority to go after the guys in practice to get the ball loose.
“It’s a little bit of everything. It’s emphasis from Coach McCarthy. It’s good, fundamental teaching from our staff, and really ultimately the players buying into things.”
As much as the Packers have put an emphasis on protecting the football, the Bears have placed an equal one on taking it away, and have ever since Lovie Smith took over as head coach of Chicago in 2004. Under Smith the Bears have posted 206 takeaways (119 interceptions and 87 fumble recoveries), the most in the NFL over that span.
Those turnovers forced have factored into Chicago’s success in a big way, with the Bears posting a 46-15 record (.754) record under Smith when they take the ball away from their opponent two or more times in a game, compared to a 9-28 mark (.243) when they force one or zero turnovers.
In each one of Green Bay’s four losses to Chicago since 2006, the Bears posted at least two takeaways. The high mark came in the Oct. 7, 2007, matchup at Lambeau Field when Green Bay turned the ball over five times, including fumbles by then-rookie wide receiver James Jones on back-to-back possessions in the first quarter, one of them inside the Bears’ 10-yard line. The Packers outgained Chicago in the game, 439 to 285, but lost, 27-20.
Both of Jones’ turnovers in that ’07 meeting were caused by cornerback Charles Tillman, who has forced more fumbles (15) than any other defensive back in the league since ’07. Since entering the NFL in 2003, Tillman is the only player in the NFL with 20 forced fumble and 20 interceptions.
“I think getting the ball is just hunger, and that’s what he loves to do,” Jones said. “I’m sure it is on his mind to get the ball out, and he is punching at it every time. You get some defensive backs that just want to secure the tackle and all of that, but he is punching at the ball every time.
“When he is around, you’ve definitely got to be heads up. He is going to be reaching for it and you definitely have to have two hands on the ball. You’ve got to make sure when you are against No. 33 this week that you are protecting that football.”
As if Tillman wasn’t enough, the Bears acquired two players from Carolina this offseason that also rank among the league leaders in forcing fumbles since ’07. Five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, signed as an unrestricted free agent in March, ranks No. 5 in the league with 15 forced over that span. Safety Chris Harris, who was re-acquired by the team in an April trade after playing for the Panthers the past three seasons, ranks second to only Tillman among defensive backs and No. 7 in the NFL with 12 forced fumbles since ’07. Eight of those for Harris came in 2007 when he led the league in the category.
Although those three players certainly have put up some prolific numbers, it is the Bears’ overall mentality of every player swarming to the football that Green Bay needs to prepare itself for.
“Our eyes are open for them when they wrap us up in the pile because they try to rip it out more than others,” Jones said. “They are after the football. The main thing is just make sure you come up with the ball. They are going to be stripping at it every time you get it. You know when one person wraps you up for a tackle, the next guy is coming to strip and I think that is their philosophy.
“Like they said in the paper, they get graded down if they don’t strip the ball or if they don’t run to the ball, so obviously it is a big emphasis in Chicago to get the ball out. We are going to have to be on our toes this week."
Additional coverage – Sept. 24