For all the NFL’s visibility — and at times it seems omnipresent — it’s still possible for an exceptional player to fly below the radar. One way is to play for the St. Louis Rams, who in the past five seasons won fewer games (21) than anybody but the Detroit Lions. When your team goes 3-13, 2-14 and 1-15 in consecutive years, as the Rams did, it’s hard not to get swallowed up by the losing, by the sheer irrelevance of your efforts.
This is the situation O.J. Atogwe found himself in before signing as a free agent with the Washington Redskins in March. By any measure, he was a star, yet he had never gone to the Pro Bowl and was anything but a household name. Part of that, though, is the league’s almost-negligent approach to defensive statistics, particularly forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. They’re two of the biggest plays you can make — potential game-changing plays — but little attention is paid to them.
So it might surprise you to learn that since 2006, when Atogwe became a starter, only two defensive backs have been bigger ball hawks, have racked up more interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. Here are the top six in this obscure but telling category:
• 48 Charles Woodson, Green Bay (30 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries)
• 46 Ed Reed, Baltimore (32 INT, 6 FF, 8 FR)
• 44 O.J. Atogwe, St. Louis (21 INT, 16 FF, 7 FR)
• 40 Asante Samuel, New England/Philadelphia (36 INT, 2 FF, 2 FR)
• 39 Charles Tillman, Chicago (18 INT, 16 FF, 5 FR)
• 34 DeAngelo Hall, Atlanta/Oakland/Washington (24 INT, 3 FF, 7 FR)
That’s right, folks, the Redskins’ secondary has two of the six biggest playmakers in the league over the past five seasons.
Beyond that, though, note that the two DBs who rank ahead of Atogwe - Woodson and Reed — likely are headed to the Hall of Fame — and that Samuel, who’s just behind him, has at least a shot at Canton. Pretty good company to be in.
Who knew that Atogwe, in his five years as a starting free safety, is fifth in the league in interceptions and, among defensive backs, tied for first in forced fumbles and tied for fifth in recoveries? (No other DB, by the way, finished in the top five in all three departments.)
If you’re wondering why the Redskins coughed up a five-year, $26 million contract for Atogwe, wonder no more. The man makes more turnover-causing plays than just about any defensive back in the NFL. And let’s face it, turnovers are where it’s at for defenses. The way the rules are written, there’s only so much you can do to shut the offense down. You can’t push receivers around anymore; one bump is all that’s allowed. And the spread of the West Coast offense, with its three-step drops and quick timing patterns, has made it harder to pressure the passer and force interceptions. So you have to try to dislodge the ball from the ball carrier whenever and however you can. Atogwe, clearly, is a master at this.
“It’s definitely something you’ve got to be consciously thinking about,” he said this week. “It affects the way you tackle. It affects the way you strike the opponent. The more you’re geared toward causing a fumble, that’s what allows it to happen.”
Atogwe gets himself in the proper frame of mind by watching game tapes and noticing which running backs and receivers are a little loose with the ball. It’s not always a case of just lowering the boom on the runner. Sometimes, if the opportunity presents itself, you can strip the ball from behind - or poke your hand in and maybe get lucky.
It helps, of course, to work on these same skills on the practice field. As Atogwe put it, “It helps me work on my technique and helps the offensive guys work on securing the football. So it’s a win-win situation.
“I’ve been doing it since college [at Stanford]. It wasn’t really something I was coached to do. It was just something I picked up along the way - just the idea of being around the ball, securing the tackle and trying to do something a little bit more. Over time, it just became a natural thing.”
Trying to do something a little bit more is what separates ordinary players from extraordinary ones. If you’re not in position to bring the ball carrier down, at least pursue the play in case the ball pops out. And if you are in position to make the tackle, see what you can do to force a fumble.
It sounds elementary, but some players take the job more seriously than others. O.J. Atogwe is one of them, even though - until now, perhaps - nobody much noticed.
• Dan Daly can be reached at email@example.com.
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