Early in the first Cincinnati Bengals OTA practice Tuesday, cornerback KeiVarae Russell broke up a Matt Barkley pass intended for rookie wide receiver Ka’Raun White to set off a wild sequence where multiple players batted the ball back in the air four or five times.
Eventually linebacker Brandon Bell squeezed it for an interception, prompting new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was standing in the middle of the field just a few feet from the action, to throw both fists in the air while letting loose with an emphatic “Yes.”
Had the ball eluded Bell’s grasp and hit the ground, Austin would have yelled something else. And it’s probably not what you’re thinking.
It would have been, “Scoop! Scoop! Scoop!”
“Every time the ball hits the ground, we treat it like a fumble,” cornerback William Jackson said. “If it hits the ground, you’ve got to go scoop it. It just simulates at any moment the ball could pop out. You see that ball and if you practice it and keep scooping it and scooping it, you never know what might happen. It’s just creating good habits.”
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The fact that Austin was repeatedly yelling “scoop” Tuesday indicates the habit isn’t formed yet, as the players aren’t used to treating an incomplete pass like a live ball.
“It’s definitely something new,” safety George Iloka said. “(Austin) told us, ‘I can’t ask you to be one way on Sundays if you don’t practice that way during the week.’ We’re trained human beings. It starts there. If the ball’s on the ground, scoop and score. When it comes to Sunday, it’s just instinct. That’s the whole point of that.”
The Bengals ranked 31st of 32 teams with 14 turnovers forced last year. Only three of those were fumble recoveries, fewest in the league tied for the fewest in franchise history with the 2016 team that also finished last in the NFL in the category.
That’s six fumble recoveries in 32 games. Twenty-eight of the 32 teams had at least that many last year alone.
From Week 6 of 2016 to Week 9 of 2017, they set an NFL record by going 19 consecutive games without recovering an opponent fumble.
“Turnovers are important, even in practice,” Russell said. “It creates that habit. It creates that culture. It brings up energy, especially on days where it’s 85 degrees, humid, everybody’s tired, everybody’s getting a lot of reps. You have to find that internal edge. When you see big plays like that, it kind of gives you a little bit of juice.”
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At least once Tuesday the Bengals didn’t wait for the ball to hit the ground to start thinking turnovers.
During one 11-on-11 series, wide receiver A.J. Green caught a pass over the middle and made a quick burst up field before slowing to a jog. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict raced up from behind, punched the ball free of Green’s grasp and scooped it up before offering a good-natured taunting of Green on his way back to the huddle.
“Last year was a down year for turnovers,” Iloka said. “It wasn’t good enough. It’s a point of emphasis. We’ve got a lot of weapons on the other side of the ball, so any time you can get a turnover and give them an extra possession, you increase your chances of winning.”
Dre Kirkpatrick also had an interception in the practice, picking off Andy Dalton by jumping an out route by John Ross. And rookie Darius Phillips added one in one-on-one drill on a Dalton ball intended for Alex Erickson.
“Once you make one, it’s a domino effect, guys are going to make more,” Russell said. “They’re important in practice and in games. You can’t expect guys go out there and make plays in the game if you’re not doing it at practice.”
Breaking up passes and going for interceptions is second nature for the defensive players.
Austin is trying to make scooping and scoring on incomplete passes equally as instinctive.
“That’s a point of emphasis from him, from our position coaches, from Marvin all the way up through the organization,” Iloka said. “Teams that win turnover battle usually have better records. So that’s a goal of ours.”