Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie shuddered at the memory.
A few years ago, while playing for Arizona, he spotted a football bouncing on the turf and dived on it to recover the fumble. Rodgers-Cromartie cradled it against his chest, tucked himself into the fetal position, then disappeared into the heavy, violent mass of players that jumped on him.
“You don’t want to be at the bottom of a pile,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “There’s a lot of scratching, biting, all kinds of things going on. I was down there with the ball and somebody just kept punching me in the ribs, punching, punching, to try to get me to let go. But I didn’t.”
The Eagles’ defensive players haven’t been on the bottom of too many piles this season.
They enter tonight’s game at New Orleans with just one fumble recovery in the first seven games, tying them with Green Bay, Indianapolis and St. Louis for the fewest in the league. Only Indianapolis (three) and Pittsburgh (seven) have fewer total turnovers than the Eagles, who have eight.
“Turnovers come in bunches,” Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “You’re always hoping for that one to get you sparked. We work at it every day (in practice) and we’re trying to get them. Some of them just fall in your lap and there are a lot of them you have to work for. We just have to keep working at it.”
The Eagles’ defensive players said each day’s workout has a session devoted to stripping the football away from the ball carrier.
One player will run with the football toward a group of three or four defenders. One defensive player will wrap his arms around the runner while the others will try to pry the football loose.
That hasn’t happened very often in the games, however. The Eagles forced just three fumbles in the first seven games, one apiece by defensive end Jason Babin, defensive end Trent Cole and safety Kurt Coleman.
Cole’s play was the only one that result in a turnover. He jarred the ball loose from Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco during the second game of the season Sept. 16 and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins pounced on it.
“In order for us to have more fumble recoveries, we have to force more fumbles,” Eagles defensive tackle Cedric Thornton said. “There are a number of ways to do it. Gang tackling is the best way, but sometimes it’s just a matter of putting your helmet on the football when you’re tackling a guy or noticing that the ball carrier is being careless with the way he handles the ball and going for it.”
Gang tackling is the most reliable method.
The main priority for a defender is to tackle the opposing running back, wide receiver or tight end. Merely swiping at the football without hitting and wrapping his arms around the ball carrier is grounds for disaster. But if he can hold the ball carrier up for even a second or two, that’s enough time for the other defensive players to swarm to the football and try to pry it loose.
“Gang tackling is all about pursuing to the ball,” said Eagles middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who leads the team with 74 tackles. “As you approach the ball carrier, the other guys have to have your back and be right there with you. The first guy there should only worry about making the tackle. The other guys are the ones who try to get the football out.”
Once the ball hits the turf, chaos ensues.
Whoever is the first to fall on the football is quickly buried under a pile of bodies. Opposing players are trying to wrestle the ball away while teammates try to keep their opponents away. A lot goes on at the bottom of the pile until officials are able to peel off the layers of players to reach the bottom.
Thornton smiled when he recalled some of his experiences.
Although he wouldn’t admit it, most of the time someone from the other team has recovered the fumble and he’s been among the players trying to take it away.
“I’ve seen punching, biting, clawing, all kinds of stuff,” Thornton said. “I’ve seen people trying to poke somebody’s eye out, punching people in the mouth, a lot of cursing. ... But I’m not going to say who was doing it. Let’s just say I’ve been on both sides of that situation.”
The Eagles may have a tough time ending their fumble slump against the Saints. They have only lost one fumble this season, tying them with Atlanta and Houston for the fewest in the league.
But if the Eagles don’t knock one loose, it won’t be from a lack of effort.
“We’ve knocked out a couple of balls, but we just haven’t recovered many of them,” Ryans said. “Sometimes luck is involved. You can do everything right and the ball just doesn’t bounce your way.”
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