LeGarrette Blount has a new way of carrying the football. He hasn't used it in a game yet, and nevertheless it already feels completely natural.
"It's become a habit," said Blount after a Tampa Bay Buccaneers mini-camp practice last week. "I don't even notice that I do it most of the time. Holding the ball down here [closer to the stomach] is kind of uncomfortable now."
Blount's new ballcarrying technique – one that by Greg Schiano's insistence he will share with every Buccaneer who gets his hands on the pigskin – is most commonly described as "high-and-tight." The ball ends up buried between the forearm, the upper arm and the chest, carried a few degrees off of vertical so that is against one of the numbers on the player's jersey. One point of the football is buried under the crook of the elbow and against the chest, protected by all the arm muscles, not just the forearm. The hand is over the other point of the football, taking away another point of entry for prying defensive hands.
It's not a new technique. Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber (twin brother of ageless Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber) famously switched to the technique after a nine-fumble campaign in 2003 and had just nine over the next three seasons combined. Tampa Bay's new offensive coordinator, Mike Sullivan, had just arrived in New York as the Giants' wide receivers coach in 2004 as Barber was adopting the high-and-tight method.
Sullivan eventually took over the Giants' quarterback and in February was hired by Schiano to run his offense, a few weeks after Schiano himself had been lured away from Rutgers to be the Bucs' head coach. Sullivan says his offensive philosophies are in "100% agreement" with Schiano's, and a big part of that agreement is attention to detail. How Buccaneer ballcarriers hold onto the football from now on is one of those details, a very important one.
While being purposely vague as to the specifics of how the Buccaneers will run the offense and call plays this fall, Sullivan offers this overall description:
"What it boils down to from a fans' standpoint, they just need to anticipate and expect that the product that is out there is a unit that is tough, that is smart and that is explosive. Those would be the three adjectives – if you break it down to those three, that's our marching orders as to what we want to have out there on the field."
When it comes to the running backs, and that middle directive, two main aspects of smart play are protecting the football and knowing the assignments in pass protection. Tampa Bay backs spent a good portion of the offseason working on the former task in individual drills and the latter one in team periods. It will be difficult to get the full measure of a running back's abilities in protecting the quarterback until the pads go on and the contact begins, but Running Backs Coach Ernest Byner isn't concerned.
"The thing that they struggle with most of the time is pass protection, and especially nickel pass protection," said Byner. "But I don't think that's going to be an issue with him. As a matter of fact, with all the guys that I have, I don't think that's going to be an issue. The way we try to simplify things, the way [Sullivan] has helped us to understand some of the pass protection schemes has really been good."
Ball security, on the other hand, was something the Buccaneers could and did practice in great detail. Blount pointed out that the skill-position players had daily drills focused on that issue, in which Schiano promised his players the high-and-tight approach would become second nature to them.
"He doesn't lie to us – if you do it long enough you don't notice it," said Blount. "If that's all you do the whole time you're at practice when you have a ball in your hand, you can't help but to make it habit. Any time I have a football in my hand, no matter if I'm walking through the mall, it's a habit. I'm going to always have it up there."
Schiano had all of his offensive assistants, not just Byner, hammering home the lesson of ball security during the offseason.
"Absolutely, it's for everyone who touches the ball, not just [backs]," said Sullivan. "Ernest has done a phenomenal job with the running backs, but P.J. Fleck with the receivers, Brian Angelichio with the tight ends, Ronny [Turner] with the quarterbacks…we break things down to give specific coaching points, buzzwords if you will just to reinforce and remind those mechanics.
Blount did have nine fumbles over the course of his first two seasons in the NFL, but he's far from the first back, particularly among young runners, to run into that issue. According to Blount, some of that has to do with proper technique not being emphasized, which is definitely not a problem at One Buccaneer Place these days.
"You have to [focus on it], because it's overlooked with the talent [in the NFL]," he said. "Leaving college, a lot of these guys are the best players on their teams, so they didn't really have to worry about the fundamentals of carrying the football correctly or catching the ball or anything like that. [Schiano] brought it back. We have our own individual period for ball security. You definitely have to learn it."
Blount's last statement are definitely words for him and his fellow backs to live by. Indeed, anyone who hopes to have the football come his way this fall had better demonstrate a commitment to holding onto it.
"That is paramount, ball security," said Sullivan. "It's something that is consistently emphasized and coached. The bottom line is, we can't score if we don't have the football. I know that's an oversimplification, but more games – and I think Coach Schiano would agree – are lost than are won because people are giving away opportunities. They're shooting themselves in the foot not being a smart football team in terms of penalties and mental errors. Certainly, the turnovers, the fumbles because of careless ways and means by which you hold the football, that can hurt you. We have control over that and that's something we're going to emphasize. Coach has done a great job and players have responded to that over the course of the spring."