FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Sometimes takeaways in the NFL are results of being in the right place at the right time. Other times, as the Minnesota Vikings found out, it's because of ball (in)security by offensive players. With the New Orleans Saints, takeaways have been their calling card, bread, butter, and their ticket to Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.
It's what they do very well. As much as Saints players get annoyed when people outside of their organization point out that they surrender a lot of yardage, that they can be gashed in the running game and that they are not the most physical defense on the field most games, it's true.
Sure, some of the balls the Saints' defenders end up with were because of mistakes of other players. But when a team amasses 39 takeaways in the regular season and then adds seven more in two playoff games -- that number could have been closer to 10 had the Saints simply fallen on fumbles by the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game instead of trying to scoop them up -- there's more than mojo working in their favor.
"At first, when we started, we just focused on making it happen," safety Roman Harper said. "We talk about it a lot. We keep count on ways to affect the quarterback. We try and force turnovers. We want to affect the ball in some kind of way. (Defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams does a chart of it and he does a good job of keeping count of ball disruption; whether you're tipping the ball or stripping it, batting down balls. Anything like that, he keeps numbers of it. We track it. We also track how we tackle the ball. We work on that. We practice that. We focus on trying to get it out."
The Saints were plus-11 in turnover differential in the regular season and plus-six in two playoff games, losing the ball just once. The Colts are plus-three in turnover differential in the playoffs after being plus-two in the regular season. Indianapolis lost just five fumbles in the regular season.
"Just about every winner (of the Super Bowl) has been on the plus side of the takeaway category," Greer said.
That is almost an understatement. In the 34 Super Bowls in which there has been turnover disparity, 31 teams that have been at least plus-one in differential have won. That one turnover edge in turnovers almost guarantees a win as teams are 5-1 when that has happened. A plus-two advantage also has produced a 5-1 record in the Super Bowl. Plus-three: 10-1. Of the teams that have managed to hold a plus-four or more advantage: 11-0.
Turnover differential is pretty much the swing vote in a game of this magnitude.
"It's our focus," Greer said. "It's about focus and effort."
It's also about preparation and instinct.
Sharper, who tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions and has two takeaways this postseason, uses his savvy and experience to bait quarterbacks and to read their eyes. He knows tendencies by film study -- on what routes quarterbacks tend to look receivers off, then throw elsewhere and where on the field they tend to do that -- but he also knows when quarterbacks are uneasy. That's when he typically strikes, although figuring out Peyton Manning won't be easy because Manning is equally as crafty.
As for preparation, the Saints, like most teams, practice how to punch out or strip the football, whether the ball carrier is upright, reaching forward or falling backward.
Minnesota fumbled six times in the NFC Championship Game, in part because balls were jarred loose. Williams instructed his players that Vikings players love to fight for extra yards, and in doing so, they tend to extend their arms to generate momentum. That's when to swipe at the ball. And swipe at the ball they did.
"A team like the Colts, you're not going to be able to go out and get four, five, six turnovers," Harper said. "We'd like to. We're going to try to, but the likelihood is not very high. They have great ball security. They don't try to get too many yards after the catch. They get down. They don't allow you too many opportunities and we understand that when they do, we have to affect the ball."
While the players on the back end of the Saints defense tend to make the most plays, as it pertains to turnovers, the front seven is just as aggressive, especially Smith, who is being overshadowed with all the news surrounding the health (ankle) of his Colts' counterpart, defensive end Dwight Freeney.
Smith had 13 sacks, an interception, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in the regular season. That is production. He's had a forced fumble and a pick in the playoffs, and he's been among the gang who's delivered a few "Remember me" shots. He is a constant threat.
"We've seen guys that are fumble prone or quarterbacks that just hold the ball loosely and if you sack them, you can get a fumble," Smith said. "We focus on those and pick out those players, so we know (that) if they ever get the ball, that we need to be swiping at it because there is a possibility that they may fumble."