Linebackers Hunting The Ball

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On the opening night of training camp Friday, when a Packers linebacker was tackling a ballcarrier or chasing down a reception in the flat, defensive coordinator Bob Sanders could be heard barking the same phrase over and over.

"Get the ball out! Get the ball out!"

Call it one of the training camp mantras of 2006, a mandate that the Packers' defense, and particularly the linebackers, find a way to force more turnovers.

The linebacking corps was nearly absent in that department last year, combining for just two interceptions, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. When you consider that fourth-year starter Nick Barnett accounted for nearly all of that (1 INT, 1 forced fumble, 3 fumble recoveries) himself, it was no surprise the unit underwent a makeover in the offseason.

Among the notable moves, Ben Taylor and Tracy White were brought in as free agents, and A.J. Hawk and Abdul Hodge were drafted in the first three rounds in April.

It's all part of an effort to get more game-changing plays out of the linebackers.

"That's our job - we're here to get the ball out," Barnett said. "Our job is to take the ball away and give our offense as many opportunities as possible to make plays. That's what we're working on."

To be fair, the linebackers weren't the only reason the Packers defense had just 21 turnovers in 2005, the second-lowest total in the NFC. But because linebackers make so many tackles, cover tight ends and running backs on pass routes, and blitz occasionally, they're around the ball with a chance to make something happen on virtually every play.

"It's a huge point of emphasis, talking about turnovers," Taylor said. "In our first meeting, Coach Sanders pointed out that looking statistically across the league, if we would have had five more turnovers we would have been 8-8.

"All it takes is that many more opportunities for your offense, and he's stressing that big-time for us."

During training camp, players on the sidelines holler mercilessly anytime a potential interception slips through a defender's hands. On other plays, the linebackers can be seen trying to get an arm or a helmet on the ball as they get in position to make a tackle.

And of course, Sanders can be heard with his reminder.

But the emphasis on turnovers is not to come at the expense of fundamentals, and that can be a fine line to walk.

"First and foremost you want to tackle the ballcarrier," Taylor said. "You don't want to take unnecessary risks just trying to slap the ball out. You want to secure the tackle first.

"There's a lot of things that go into it. When you get the chance it's usually when one person has the guy wrapped up and the second person comes in and knocks the ball out. That's what I think they're trying to do is emphasize that."

Especially for young linebackers, technique has to come first.

"You look at guys like Barnett, guys that have been playing in the league for some years, they're fundamentally, technically sound," Hodge said. "So just watching guys like that and watching how they work is helping me out as a rookie."

The rest, such as the big hits that cause turnovers and create big plays, hopefully will come sooner rather than later.

"You just want to be physical and you just want to finish," Hodge said. "You have to have an attitude to finish every play."

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