Late in the fourth quarter of Monday’s victory at Philadelphia, Panthers safety Sherrod Martin zeroed in on Eagles kick returner Brandon Boykin – or more specifically, the football cradled in Boykin’s left arm.
Running toward Boykin from behind, Martin saw two Panthers special teams players in position to make the tackle. So Martin went for the ball, yanking it free with both hands for a fumble that the Panthers’ Gary Barnidge recovered to help seal the victory.
“His vision was on the inside. He got the ball in his outside hand. It was just perfect timing,” Martin recalled Wednesday. “My teammates were there, the tackle was secure. It was just, get the ball out.”
That has been the Panthers’ mantra since Week 4, when the defensive coaches put a renewed emphasis on creating turnovers. After the Panthers had no takeaways in losses to Tampa Bay and the New York Giants, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott set up a turnover circuit for his players to go through once a week.
The circuit involves three stations – one where they work on stripping the ball, another where they practice scooping up a loose ball, and an interception drill.
It seems to have worked.
The Panthers had a total of two takeaways (both against New Orleans) through the first three games. Since implementing the turnover circuit, the Panthers have averaged two takeaways a game.
“We do that constantly. We do it at least once a week. It’s been a point of emphasis since Week 3 or 4,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “Whether it’s a Wednesday or Thursday, Sean has them out there doing those things. And the guys are beginning to see it and realize and recognize it.”
The Panthers had three takeaways Monday against the Eagles, forcing three second-half fumbles that helped offset a big night by Eagles running back Bryce Brown.
Carolina (3-8) should have an opportunity to come up with more turnovers Sunday against Kansas City, which is last in the league in turnovers (32) and turnover margin (minus-21).
The Chiefs (1-10) also have the league’s worst record. Less than 30 seconds into a teleconference with Charlotte media Wednesday, Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel broached the subject.
“Well, there’s not a lot to recap because we haven’t done a whole lot,” Crennel said. “Our biggest problems are turnovers, so if we can eliminate the turnovers we would give ourselves a chance to be competitive and be in games.”
Philadelphia (3-8) also has struggled with turnovers. The Eagles are next to last, behind Kansas City, with 27 giveaways and a turnover margin of minus-17.
As they prepared last week for an Eagles team missing quarterback Michael Vick and running back LeSean McCoy, the Panthers thought they could have chances to knock the ball loose. The Eagles started rookies at quarterback (Nick Foles) and running back (Brown).
Though Brown set an Eagles’ rookie record with 178 rushing yards, he lost two third-quarter fumbles.
“We saw it a little bit on film. Especially with younger running backs, when they’re running and they break that line of scrimmage, they’re not always expecting you to hit right away,” said defensive tackle Sione Fua, who caused Brown’s first fumble. “So they try to spin and make moves, and they kind of carry it loose.”
The Panthers are far from the NFL’s best ball-hawking teams. They are tied for 14th with 18 takeaways, while their even (zero) turnover margin is tied for 16th.
But the takeaway mindset is being drilled into them every day – thanks in no small part to defensive assistant Bobby Babich. While running the scout team against the first-team defense, Babich provides loud and frequent reminders about the importance of turnovers.
“Babich is always yelling, ‘Get it out. Scoop it, scoop it,’” Fua said. “It’s kind of funny. The offense makes fun of Babich a little bit. They’ll be mocking him on the sideline. Steve (Smith) will be like, ‘Scoop it, scoop it,’ just messing around. But really it’s paid off this year.”
Besides running through the circuit, the Panthers have incorporated turnover drills during other parts of practice. On incomplete passes, Fua said defenders will scoop up the ball as though it were a fumble – “just to make it a habit.”
Defensive end Greg Hardy said it’s catching on.
“We’re just always talking about getting the ball out and emphasizing it – assistant coaches, head coach, everybody,” Hardy said. “It’s starting to pick up and become like a style of play around here.”
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