NFL coaches have long preached the importance of winning the turnover battle. And for good reason: It’s one of the statistics most closely correlated to winning.
The Minnesota Vikings only won the take-give margin four times in 2018. Not surprisingly, they went 4-0 in those games.
But Minnesota went just 4-7-1 in the other 12, and 2-4-1 in the games where they lost the take-give.
Altogether, the Vikings finished dead even in season-long turnover margin. They were propelled by a pair of lopsided games against San Francisco and the New York Jets (combined +7) to avoid being on the negative end of the spectrum, but creating turnovers proved to be challenging for an otherwise above-average defense.
Generating takeaways is once again an emphasis for the Vikings in 2019, but the reality is that turnover creation is a volatile, unstable statistic that can be hard to control, regardless of talent and practice.
“Little bit of luck, little bit of skill,” said linebacker Anthony Barr. “Ball’s gotta bounce your way a little bit.”
The raw stats
Since Mike Zimmer took over in 2014, the Vikings have the 11th-fewest turnovers in the NFL. They’ve ranked, on average, 18th in recovering fumbles — that’s the sixth-lowest average ranking in the NFL over that span. Twice in those five seasons they’ve finished in the bottom six (2014, 2017). Once they finished in the top 10 (2016).
The Vikings have consistently wound up in the middle of the league in interceptions, ranking between 12th and 18th each year under Zimmer, an average placement of about 16th.
Based on turnover rankings from the last five years, teams will move, on average, up or down roughly 10 spots per year, both for fumbles (10.05 spots) and interceptions (9.82). Sometimes the shifts are more dramatic. Eight times a team has gone from the top five to the bottom five — or vice versa — in fumble recoveries, like the Houston Texans did last year when they led the league. Big moves like that have happened nine times over the past five years with interceptions, like when the Bears, Dolphins and Browns all finished in the top five a year ago following dismal 2018 seasons.
Harrison Smith understands why there’s such fluctuation.
“There’s so many factors that go into it,” he told Zone Coverage. “You get a lead on teams and they’re going to have to start throwing the ball. Two-minute scenarios sometimes there’s turnovers at the end of games that aren’t really turnovers, they’re just end of games. That can happen a few times and impact your stats.”
TOP 5 AVERAGE FUMBLE RECOVERY RANKING (SINCE 2014)
It’s surprisingly common to see 180-degree shifts in takeaway fortune. Rarer are teams that can sustain success (or failure) in creating takeaways, especially fumbles. Only twice in the last five years has a team finished top five in back-to-back seasons for recovering opponents’ fumbles (2015-16 Broncos, 2016-17 Cardinals). Just once has a team finished in the bottom five back-to-back years (2016-17 Bengals).
Interceptions are slightly more sustainable. Four teams have managed to finish top five in back-to-back years (2014-16 Bengals, 2015-16 Chiefs, 2015-16 Panthers, 2016-17 Ravens). The 2015-17 Bears were the only team to finish bottom five multiple years in a row.
TOP 5 AVERAGE INT RANKING (SINCE 2014)
As Smith alluded to, the Vikings had a cheap end-of-game takeaway last Sunday when Seattle, down by six points, threw the ball from inside their own 20 on the final play of regulation, leading to an easy interception by linebacker Devante Downs. Minnesota also saw two takeaways literally slip through their fingers. Linebacker Kentrell Brothers dropped an interception near the goal line, and safety Marcus Epps failed to handle a slow-rolling fumble just inches from his body.
It’s that type of unlucky bounce that one might call ‘fumble luck.’ The Vikings didn’t have much of it a year ago.
Per TeamRankings.com, Minnesota’s fumble recovery percentage on opponents’ fumbles was sixth-worst in the NFL, and their opponents’ fumbles not recovered per game was fourth-highest. Combine those stats with the fact that Vikings opponents fumbled 1.5 times per game, the sixth highest total in the league, it’s easy to see where the Vikings could progress back to average.
“You might have 10 fumbles, you get only five of them,” Zimmer said. “If you get eight of them, you’re going to be a lot better in that area.”
Both Smith and Barr agree that forcing fumbles is a skill, and that certain teams and players are better at it than others. Zimmer dislikes too much gambling on the defensive end, however, whether that’s overzealously jumping a route in the secondary or failing to wrap up a ball carrier while trying to punch the ball out. Players must be judicious in their pursuit of splash plays.
“I think you look at like a Peanut Tillman type,” said Smith, “he’s always punching at the ball, but he had a crazy knack for it and could still make tackles doing it. That’s not undisciplined. But then if our guys just started constantly punching at balls and not tackling, that’s another thing.”
A look at last year
A year ago the Vikings recovered eight fumbles on defense while making 12 interceptions. You might say anywhere from 7-10 of them were forced by intuitive defensive plays versus offensive blunders. Smith, for instance, jumped a route when San Francisco’s intended receiver was double-covered in Week 1 last year, leading to a game-sealing interception. In Week 6, Barr cleanly stripped David Johnson for one of the Vikings’ eight fumble recoveries last season.
On a few occasions, quarterback pressure coaxed a bad throw or fumble, like when Stephen Weatherly hit Carson Wentz to dislodge the ball and Linval Joseph returned it for an iconic touchdown. It’s that type of takeaway that the Vikings see as coachable and repeatable.
“There’s really a fine line between gambling and giving up plays because you’re gambling,” said Zimmer, “and getting turnovers, being sound, making plays and putting your hat on the ball. Best kind are when you can hit the quarterback or make the quarterback make some bad decisions.”
Many takeaways rely on simply being opportunistic, like when Matthew Stafford made an ill-advised lateral attempt in Week 9 last year, which Danielle Hunter returned for a touchdown. Or when Jay Ajayi dropped the ball inside the Vikings’ 10-yard line at Philadelphia. Or when Green Bay’s Tramon Williams muffed a punt in Week 12.
Once in a while, coaching can play a role in luring teams into turnovers. A smart defensive call might bait a quarterback into a bad decision that can lead to a change in possession.
“You can trick some people,” Zimmer said, “like the San Francisco game when Mike Hughes intercepted the ball, that was probably a coverage that [Jimmy Garoppolo] didn’t expect with that pressure.”
Said Barr: “You have to understand how you’re being attacked, and if you can get a beat on that you’ll put yourself in better position to make a play.”
The Vikings have taken a disciplined approach defensively under Zimmer that has paid dividends. While individuals have rarely posted massive interception or sack totals, the defense as a whole has remained strong and stingy thanks to its attention to technique and scheme.
The unit believes if it stays true to those tenets, the turnovers will come.
“If everyone’s executing their jobs,” said Smith, “running to the ball, getting the ball out, getting to the quarterback, they’ll create themselves.”