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Bill Belichick and the sweet science of the turnover

11.30.12 at 3:05 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The Patriots lead the NFL in turnover differential by a landslide. They have a +24, twice the number of the Ravens, the No. 2 team in the AFC in that category. The plus-24 is also 11 better than the next closest team in the NFL, the Bears.

Why?

Because the Patriots have perfected the art of stripping the ball from the carrier – rusher, receiver or quarterback – better than anyone. And like anything with Bill Belichick, there’s a science to it.

The Patriots have recovered 18 fumbles while committing just five of their own.

How often do they work on it?

“Every day,” Belichick said Friday. “We work on stripping the ball every day; recovering them every day. We talk about opportunities to get the ball out as we watch film. It’€™s no different than the way it’€™s been ‘€“ we’€™ve done that since I was with the Giants. It’€™s part of your defense.”

The Patriots are about to seal their 12th straight winning season under Belichick. Turnover differential is arguably the biggest reason why.

Only twice in Belichick’s 13 seasons have they had a negative number. In 2000, his first season, they were minus-2 and finished 5-11. In 2005, they were minus-6, the worst in his 13 seasons but still finished 10-6 and won the AFC East.

Since 2005, they have posted six straight seasons of plus turnover differential and are well on their way to making it seven.

Usually this is a team stat but there’s two stars on this team that have perfected it – Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich, each with five. Ninkovich has recorded all of his on strip sacks this season, matching Mike Vrabel in 2007 for the franchise record. Why is he so good at stripping it and recovering it as opposed to some other guys who look clumsy trying to pick up the ball?

“It’€™s just like everybody else, some guys are better at some things than others,” Belichick said “Other guys are better at some things than they are at other things. I don’€™t know. A big part of causing fumbles is awareness, timing speed can play into it, coming up from behind ‘€“ that’€™s usually a good opportunity to cause fumbles is by a defensive back or a linebacker, could be by a defensive linemen running down guys from behind, backs, receivers, quarterbacks, whoever it happens to be.

“Those are usually good strip opportunities. He’€™s had a number of those. Rob has good awareness, he’€™s a good athlete and he does a lot of things well. He runs well, has good quickness, catches the ball well ‘€“ he’€™s had a bunch of interceptions for us. I think guys that have those kind of skills have a little more propensity to find the ball, knock it out and come up with it cleanly.

Does Belichick watch how opponents’€™ ball handlers carry the ball?

“Carry it, throw it, yeah,” he said. “Again, whatever opportunities we have. When we see certain types of plays, certain techniques, we point those out to the players ‘€“ If we were in this situation, we would have an opportunity to be in the throwing lane or disrupt the ball or strip it out or if we read this, we would have a chance to undercut the route and intercept it or whatever it happens to be. As we’€™re watching plays we talk about those things, sure. Maybe it’€™s not on that particular play because of what the other team’€™s defense is in but we’€™d say, ‘€˜OK, if we were in this defense, if we were here or if you were in this position, then this is the play you would want to try to make.’€™ Then there would be a drill, maybe we wouldn’€™t be doing it that day, but a drill that we have done that we would talk about and say, ‘€˜OK, here’€™s an example of how we would use this drill or this technique.’€™ Yeah sure, we talk about it all the time.

“We try to rotate them and keep them fresh. I’€™d say over the course of a two or three-week period, we try to hit our different tackling drills, turnover drills, other techniques that we use in different positions so that we keep some kind of repetition and consistency with them. We just have more time to do it in training camp so we can turn them over quicker or sometimes we can do them on a daily basis. I shouldn’€™t say we have more time, we do have more time, but we allot more time for those things. We get into the season and we cut back our time on some of those things so we have to use multiple days to cover those bases because there’€™s more game planning, more adjustments, more things that we have to cover from a scheme or sometimes team standpoint. Whereas in training camp, it’€™s a heavy emphasis on fundamentals and techniques and trying to build a good base there that will carry you through the season. Then you can go back and refresh them, but it’€™s hard really to teach those things now. You have to have a base that you’€™ve already built.”

Like anything with Belichick, if he sees something on film, he zeroes in on it.

“Absolutely, if we feel like this is a week that we really have a good chance at this type of situation or that type of situation then of course we practice it more,” Belichick said. “Or if we’€™re not doing it well for whatever reason, we have a couple plays that we don’€™t do well in practice or we don’€™t do well in the game, we go back and emphasize it in a particular drill, try to point it out and go back and give everybody a chance to do it and make us more aware of that technique or that type of play. Absolutely, we do that all the time.”

Here is the rest of Friday’s Q and A with Belichick from Gillette Stadium:

BB: So we’€™re winding it down here for the week. [We] decided to take [the] suggestion and go inside today; crank up the temperature. But yeah, we’€™re trying to pull together our preparations and be ready to go on Sunday.

Q: Are you serious about that ‘€“ going inside and turning up the temperature?

BB: Yeah, we’€™ll be in the bubble.

Q: Have you noticed in the past that that helps?

BB: It helps when you have a good team and you play well ‘€“ that helps.

Q: In terms of doing that, is there a benefit or is it more just for today that you feel you will be more efficient inside?

BB: We’€™ve been out on the grass for a couple days. Today’€™s really a good concentration, mental day.

Q: Does former Bengals defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle have a heavy defensive blitz style?

BB: I think that their defensive style is similar to what the Bengals do. There’€™s a decent amount that they bring. They bring quite a bit of secondary pressure; corners, safeties. They keep you off balance. There are plenty of plays where they don’€™t blitz but they [bring] secondary pressure and linebacker pressure, man, zone blitz. They keep it moving. There’€™s a lot to get ready for; they give you a bunch of different looks.

Q: What are the expectations of Visanthe Shiancoe and Daniel Fells with Rob Gronkowski out?

BB: Same as for every player on the roster ‘€“ prepare, practice and be ready to go.

Q: What about the tight ends specifically?

BB: Dan [Fells] played a little more last week against the Jets. I thought he did some good things. Hooman [Michael Hoomanawanui] has played his role fairly consistently through a few games now. Shianc [Visanthe Shiancoe] played, has spotted him a little bit the last couple weeks. As we all know, that all could change from week to week depending on game plan and scheme and how it’€™s going for that particular week anyway. So, I think the expectations would be that they’€™re prepared, they’€™re ready to go and when they get the opportunity they’€™ll go in there and perform well, just like everybody else.

Q: What’€™s the biggest difference scheme-wise between a big nickel, three safety secondary and a standard situation with a nickel secondary where you have two safeties and multiple corners?

BB: I would say the ability of that fifth defensive back, that third safety vs. the third corner, what the skills of that player are and what you’€™re playing against.

Q: Do you see less of the big nickel because of the passing games, just as a simple generalization?

BB: Again, I think it depends on the team and it depends on the player. Like the Giants, they really play the third safety. We’€™ve played it that way with [Patrick] Chung in the past. I think if you have a true third slot receiver, a guy like whoever it is, whether it’€™s [Wes] Welker or [Davone] Bess or [Jeremy] Kerley or whoever you happen to be playing, then it’€™s who you want matched up against that guy and what your options are, who you want to put on him. Running game can factor into that. Again, who that player is, sometimes that ‘€“ like a bigger slot receiver or is it a smaller, quicker guy? Is it 12 personnel, is it two tight ends and that inside receiver is more of a tight end type player. And who are your players, who are you talking about putting on them relative to the matchup? Some teams like to put the same guy in there and do everything with one guy and then there’€™s continuity to the defense. Other teams like to match up to try to get the player they want matched up against the other team’€™s guy that he’€™s going to be facing. It depends, there are a lot of variables.

Q: You have converted better than 53 percent of your third downs. Have you ever been around a team that is that efficient on third down? Why do you suppose that is ‘€“ is it matchups, executions, a sense of urgency?

BB: I think ultimately, sure, it comes down to execution. Some of that of course is the situations that you’€™re in. Nobody in the league is converting 50 percent of 10-pluses. You put yourself in enough long yardage situations, you won’€™t convert them. Conversely, third-and-one, third-and-two, you’€™re up in the 70 percent range league-wide. The distance you’€™re in, the situation you’€™re in, has something to do with it. But over the long haul that probably evens out. You get about the same number percentage-wise that everybody else does, more or less, so it comes down to execution.

Q: With a win Sunday, it will be the 12th straight winning season for the Patriots. The quarterback and coach have been constants through the streak. How has having the same quarterback helped you, in terms of building the program here?

BB: Sure, of course it has a lot to do with it. Tom [Brady] has been a great player for us. We won 11 games without him in 2008. I think it really just speaks to the entire organization more than it’€™s about me or Tom or somebody else, I don’€™t know, pick out some other names, whoever it is. There have been a lot of different players here, different coaches, different coordinators, different people involved, but it’€™s ultimately been games that we’€™ve won are a credit to those teams and all the people that were included in them. I don’€™t think that has a whole lot of bearing on what’€™s going to happen this week or this year. We’€™ll see what this team and this group can do. But we’€™re looking forward to the opportunity down there Sunday. We’€™ve put ourselves in a decent position so hopefully we can go down there and perform well and take advantage of it.

Q: When you are starting a program, to have continuity at the quarterback position, that is the way you would draw it up if you could, right?

BB: Sure, the ball runs through his hands on virtually every play, one way or another. What that player does well, what his strengths are, being able to build around them, whether it’€™s personnel or scheme or whatever your system is. Likewise, things that that player doesn’€™t do well or maybe aren’€™t his strengths, working around those and not emphasizing those things but emphasizing something else. Like when [Matt] Cassel was in there, over the course of the year, we won games, we won them differently. The quarterback running was a big part of it, the running game, more than it is now. Each team, each player, has their own strengths and weaknesses but if you can count on somebody being there on a consistent basis, then you can plan and work around that to a certain degree. Tom has a lot of strengths; he does a lot of things well, so there aren’€™t a lot of limiting factors with him. Really, it opens a lot of doors more than closes them. But that may change from year to year, which ones that we’€™re productive with.

Read More: Bill Belichick, Brandon Spikes, Miami Dolphins, Mike Vrabel
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