GREEN BAY, Wis. – Winning football teams take care of the football. Last season, the four teams that reached conference championship games finished in the top half of the NFL in fumbles. That includes the Green Bay Packers, who had the third-fewest fumbles, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had the sixth-fewest.
Fumbles, of course, struck at the worst possible moment for the Packers. In the NFC Championship Game against Tampa Bay, Pro Bowler Aaron Jones fumbled twice after fumbling twice in the entire regular season. The second of those fumbles was a killer, setting up an easy touchdown that put the Packers in a 28-10 hole.
“It was a negative play, obviously. The guy caught him at the right time,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said on Thursday of the jarring hit by Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead that not only caused a fumble but ended Jones’ day with injured ribs. “But sometimes when you’re dealing with negatives, you can use those to turn them into positives.”
For Jones, the fumble was part of the “unfinished business” that played a role in him re-signing in free agency.
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“That’s not how he wanted to end the season, especially with how important it is to him to produce for his teammates,” Sirmans continued. “So, I think if anything, what that did was that added a little bit more hunger to how he feels about this season, to try to erase (that). Mentally, he has erased it, he’s moved on. But to say that it’s still not sitting in the back of his head somewhere and he’s using that as part of his motivation to spur him on, if anything, that’s what you’re seeing now with him — that eagerness to get back in that game and be back in that situation.”
Sirmans is entering his sixth season as the Packers’ running backs coach. His players typically have held onto the football. Jones entered the NFC Championship Game with six fumbles in 782 career regular-season touches. In 622 touches over four seasons, Jamaal Williams – Jones’ former backup who signed with the Detroit Lions in free agency – never fumbled. Last year’s second-round pick, AJ Dillon, didn’t fumble in 48 touches as a rookie after coughing it up only four times in 566 touches over his final two seasons at Boston College.
New to the group is seventh-round pick Kylin Hill. Hill finished his career at Mississippi State with 448 consecutive touches without a fumble dating to his freshman year of 2017.
“The one thing he has done a great job of is securing the ball in traffic,” Sirmans said of Hill. “And you can see him do it here when we practice. Initially, it’s really kind of hard to believe just with how he carried the ball in college. He carried it away from his body a lot but he just had that great presence of mind to know that anytime the defense started to close in on him, he was ready to secure it.”
Sirmans preaches ball security. Presumably like all of his colleagues around the NFL, ball-security drills are a staple of practice. On Wednesday, for instance, while the backs sprinted through a series of cones, Sirmans and another coach whacked at the football with a giant pad.
“I’m always going to go about it the same way,” Sirmans said. “I treat every back as though they have an issue (with ball security), because I think that’s important, to try to reinforce that particular skill. You look at Jamaal Williams, he never fumbled here in all of his four years here, but I still treated him as though he was a guy who ran with the ball and was vulnerable for it coming out.”