Fumbles, for the most part, don’t just happen. They are crafted.
Each player on the defensive side of the ball has his own assignment when it comes to prying a possession loose from its holder. Several pieces have to fall into place just right to get a 240-pound tailback, arms wrapped tightly around the ball as though he were protecting his offspring, to abandon his primary directive.
Sometimes it’s a one-man operation. Other times it’s a collaboration. But each fumble, barring the occasional DeSean Jackson drop at the 1-yard line or Mark Sanchez slide into his own lineman’s posterior, is the synthesis of drills and tape study accumulated from years of practice. No fumble is just a single moment; it’s a stalagmite created from a steady football drip into a defender’s brain.
The process begins before contact is made. Defenders size up runners, assess what they’re dealing with, and weigh the risk of missing a tackle vs. the reward of freeing the ball and ending a budding possession. From there, every motion — from a sturdy wrap-up that pushes a running back’s arms upwards where a teammate can swat it to the turf, to the chase-down punch once perfected by Charles Tillman — is meaningful. In the perfect setting, it’s the destructive force that turns the most sure-handed player into a butter-fingered mess.
How does a play come to this momentum-changing terminus? I had the chance to speak with more than a dozen of this year’s top defensive prospects at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Together, they helped me better understand when they had the green light to swat at the ball, and which technique was their bread and butter when they saw a sliver of daylight. The answers I got ranged from simple to in-depth, but all shed some light on how these players approached each game and each play.
Phase I: The defensive linemen set the stage
The first line of defense most ballcarriers face — running backs and quarterbacks, mostly — are the biggest guys on the field. Tailbacks are tasked with not only identifying holes, making cuts, and accelerating to top speed moments after a handoff, but also have to deal with ball protection while being tackled by opponents who may nearly double their body weight.
For tackles and ends, the mission may be different. Players who tip the scales at 300+ pounds man the middle of the field to clog running lanes and shrink pockets. They’re dealing with runners bracing for impact at the line of scrimmage, so their goal is often more on standing up a running back — and allowing their teammates to rip the ball from well-guarded hands — before depositing him on the turf.
Fumble-forcing technique No. 1: The stack
Khalil Davis, Nebraska (drafted by the Buccaneers, sixth round): Usually if I’m on an offensive tackle and I’m about to do a move, and I see the ball gets out [from QB to RB] quick, I swipe, then I push off so they can never get a hold of me. So I can get to the ball faster. It’s always swipe, then push, to keep them off of me, create space.
I’m an ankle biter. I don’t understand why some guys go up high. If I get your feet, someone else is going to clean you up.
Broderick Washington, Texas Tech (Ravens, fifth round): My hands are kinda big [they measured in at 10-3/8 inches at the combine, larger than Paxton Lynch’s famously big mitts]. It’s kinda hard for me to punch out the ball sometimes.
So I try to be the first guy to the ball and just wrap up the guy and be able to help out my teammates. One of my teammates will be able to come in, rip it out, or punch it out.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t ball focused as well. Being the first man at the point of contact also means getting the first crack at a potentially fumble-prone back. There’s a way to loosen his grip while retaining solid tackling form. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting your arms in the right spot and driving forward.
Carlos Davis, Nebraska (Steelers, seventh round): We practice [forcing fumbles] a lot. It’s really just getting your head on one side of the ball and just punching through right in between the elbow — at that weak spot [where the upper arm and forearm meet].
McTelvin Agim, Arkansas (Broncos, third round): Try to wrap up around the waist. Most of the time, somebody will have the ball up around his waist. If you’re hitting a guy and your arm just happens to hit the ball, most of the time you’ll knock it loose. [If you’re a runner in the backfield] your focus is on not getting hit first, not keeping your arms tight.
Fumble-forcing technique No. 2: The wrap-up around the waist
Rob Windsor, Penn State (Colts, sixth round): If you see the ball, punch it. It’s real simple. You’re gonna go in and try to hit a guy as hard as you can. But if that ball’s exposed, you’re gonna punch at that ball.
The priority is a little different for the edge rushers making their way around the corner. With more looks at panicked quarterbacks and a little extra space from the epicenter of every play, they have a bit more freedom when it comes to creating a turnover vs. just stacking up an opponent.
Fumble-forcing technique No. 3: The rip
Derrek Tuszka, North Dakota State (Broncos, seventh round): We do a lot of ball drills, playing cuts, and getting our hands up to block a screen. A lot of it’s just awareness and skill, knowing where you’re at on the field.
Every situation’s a little different. It depends on where they’re coming from, the angle, where they’ve got the ball, which hand, how they’re holding it, if they’re flagging it, or whatnot. There’s all sorts of different ways; you can either punch or rip it — it’s one of those things that changes case by case.
Carter Coughlin, Minnesota (Giants, seventh round): Anytime you see the ball, you’ve gotta try to rip it out. I don’t know if I’d say there’s necessarily a “secret,” but when you see the ball, you go get the ball. You always gotta secure the tackle first. I like ripping it out — if you can get your fingers around the ball a little bit, then give it a lawnmower tug. There’s a high chance it’s going to come out.
On running plays, the defensive line sets the stage for a potential turnover. But when runners break free or quarterbacks set their sights on the intermediate passing game, it’s time for the next level of defense to step up and try to take advantage of what their linemen gave them.
Phase II: The linebackers build up speed and do a little bit of everything
Linebackers have to be versatile. Fast enough to handle coverage duties; big enough to fill gaps and stop charging running backs and tight ends.
Their spot in the middle of the field means they need to simultaneously be tackles and defensive backs. They have to have a hundred different ways to attack the ball — whether it’s stacking a loosed tailback up in the middle of the field, or chasing down a wideout to punch the ball out from behind. That can be the product of a measured attack and a perfectly placed tackle. Or it can be a matter of identifying the needle amidst the hay their teammates have stacked up and extracting it from the pile.
Fumble-forcing technique No. 4: Get your face on the ball
Logan Wilson, Wyoming (Bengals, third round): It depends on the situation. As the first man in, you don’t necessarily want to be the guy to force the fumble. If you’re the second man in, that’s when you can make a strip attempt at the ball because that’s when [ballcarriers] are about to fall. When guys are falling, their arms go out. The ball starts to come out.
But usually when you’re the first contact, you don’t want to be as eager at it. I like to punch first, then come out and try to rip it.
Markus Bailey, Purdue (Bengals, seventh round): I need to get more detailed on actually punching the ball. A lot of my fumbles forced have been from putting my face on the ball. That’s pretty easy — you can put your facemask right on the rock [while making a tackle]. You see a lot of the guys in the NFL, especially DBs, they take their fist and they actually punch the ball out. You hit the ball with enough force, and guys, their natural running motion goes away from their body, then you can punch it out.
Fumble-forcing technique No. 5: The punch in a pile
Justin Strnad, Wake Forest (Broncos, fifth round): Our coach always talks about securing the tackle first. Then you worry about ripping or prying or just punching the ball out. It depends on what angle you’re attacking the ballcarrier from.
I like to wrap up first, then if I’m behind them, I’ll use a punch.
Tanner Muse, Clemson, a college safety projected to move to linebacker in the NFL (Raiders, third round): I’m always going for the sure tackle. If I’m ever in a wad of players, that’s when I’ll go for the strip. You see a lot of guys punch the ball, but most of the time it’s not on purpose. Sometimes it just happens.
I like going under. If he’s wrapped up, I go under his arm because a lot of guys are on top of the ball. If you come under, it’ll pop out a lot easier.
Phase III: Defensive backs can either clean up a play or turn a big gain into a bigger swing
The dynamics of a cornerback or safety bringing down a ballcarrier are different than their peers. They’re the last line of defense, and they have to use their athleticism to chase down runners who’ve already hit top speed. That adds new challenges to their equation — and new opportunities.
Ideally, a defense will have cleaned up a running play before it gets to the secondary, allowing defensive backs and safeties to swoop into the stack and swipe at the ball while their teammates complete a harmonized tackle. Other times they’re stuck chasing a wide receiver whose long strides may make them difficult to catch but also require limited ball security away from their chests.
The choice to prioritize a turnover over potentially giving up more yardage is a snap decision every DB has to make. Several of the coverage guys I spoke with in Indianapolis put forcing fumbles at the top of their list when it came to making plays; others are too focused on stopping the ball and preventing touchdowns instead.
Lavert Hill, Michigan (undrafted, signed with the Chiefs): Nah, [there’s no green light to go for a strip]. The best thing is to just get them on the ground. That’s about it.
Javelin Guidry, Utah (undrafted, Jets): First thing: not letting them score. We put in a lot of work at Utah, where we’d been told we’ve gotta stop them from scoring because you’ll always have another chance the next play.
Others have a plan for when a runner breaks free in the second level and a preferred technique for getting the pigskin on the ground. How do they come to that conclusion? It all depends on who’s carrying the ball ... and how.
Myles Bryant, Washington (undrafted, Patriots): You see guys on film running with the ball, running with it away from the body. That’s the natural part — when you run, your arms aren’t naturally tied to your body. Holding the ball, that’s a pretty unnatural move. It’s hard for a lot of guys to really hold on to that ball tight. Any opportunity I have, I’m going to punch it.
Punch is an underrated move. A lot of guys don’t use it. A punch is gonna get the ball out, and I’ve done it a bunch of times.
Kindle Vildor, Georgia Southern (Bears, fifth round): When he’s holding it high, not really carrying it tight, like that [motions about three-quarters to shoulder height with his hands], that’s the visual that tells me to knock the ball out, go get a good punch in.
Fumble-forcing technique No. 6: The punch from behind/hammer
A.J. Green, Oklahoma State (undrafted, Browns): It depends on who’s running with the ball. Quarterbacks tend to run looser with the ball. Running backs tend to look back and kind of head to the end zone at the same time. Mostly, if it’s a quarterback, I’m definitely going to go for that strip. But if it’s a running back, I’ll go for the strip but make sure I secure the tackle first.
Essang Bassey, Wake Forest (undrafted, Broncos): Every time you tackle as a defender you’ve gotta have a technique. Usually when I’m chasing down the field, I like the hammer technique — over the shoulder. A lot of times you can get that from behind — the guy doesn’t see you coming — or from the side. A straight jab, straight through the ball. Those are two good techniques.
Stantley Thomas-Oliver, Florida International (Panthers, seventh round): The best advice I got was from [FIU safeties] Coach [Jeff] Copp. He told me never be too high, never be too low playing corner. Always be steady. You could make a play, not make a play, but always stay even-keeled. Always stay focused at the task at hand.
[On when he goes for a strip] If it’s the open field, then not too much. But if there’s a bunch of us, I’m definitely going to try to punch the ball out from behind. And with my teammates running behind me, I know they’re going to pick up the ball.
Even if the process is different, the hopeful end result is always the same: chaos
Every defender looks at the opportunity to create a fumble differently. For some, it’s not even a notion until a stop is 100 percent guaranteed. For others, tackling comes first ... until some unaware ballcarrier lets his arms rise a little too high or barrels into a tight squeeze with one hand on the ball instead of two.
There’s no special sauce when it comes to forcing fumbles, no one move that will end a possession. Instead, the art is a combination of awareness, identification, and then the speed and strength to turn a player’s top priority — not giving away the ball — into his biggest weakness.
While most of these turnovers lay blame on the runner and cries of ball security and fumble-itis, the fact the ball only hit the turf 647 times in 256 NFL games in 2019 feels like a borderline miracle. Each punch, swipe, hammer, and pry at the ball is a unique snowflake in a blizzard of shots that end most plays in the NFL.
And when it happens, it’s not a happy coincidence. It’s the payoff of sweat equity.