How the Lions are perfecting the punchout takeaway

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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Detroit Lions defensive back Justin Coleman will be walking around the house and can’t help himself. He sees his wife, Destiny, holding almost anything, really, and half messing around, half serious, he’ll take a swipe at it.

He’ll never try to actually knock whatever she’s carrying out of her hands -- it often is valuable -- but the playfulness is a point of practice.

“She’s like, ‘What are you doing?’" Coleman said with a sly smile. “I’m like, ‘Nothing, just getting better.’"

This is how Coleman thinks. If he’s walking around the Lions' facility and sees someone holding a football, he’ll try to knock it loose. If he’s at home, he’ll do a quick backpedal or work on defensive back drills going from one room to the other.

Knocking the ball from offensive players -- punching at it to force turnovers or break up passes -- has become the 26-year-old's way of life. In practice, it is one of his main objectives. In games, it’s one of his defining traits.

“It’s just a mentality, just how you want to, every play, if you want to punch at the ball or not,” Coleman said. “A lot of guys, when they are around a tackle, they just go for the tackle. Then, you have with my mindset, I just want to go for the ball, you know.

“A tackle ain’t enough. And I feel like everybody is capable of it.”

Most, though, have not been as productive as Coleman, who has nine passes defended, a forced fumble and fumble recovery this season -- part of a trend for the Lions (2-2-1) of producing more turnovers.

After emphasizing strips in the offseason, Detroit has forced nine fumbles and recovered six in five games this season. It’s come from defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs, on both defense and special teams.

“I 100 percent say that I’ve never been on a team that emphasizes it as much as here,” rookie cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “I mean, we definitely worked on stripping the ball and stuff like that, but knowing when to punch the ball, when they have one hand on the ground and how that exposes it, just knowing certain circumstances where you can get at the ball.”

Coach Matt Patricia started emphasizing the punchout when he first arrived in Detroit last year. Like most things, though, it took time to resonate. The Lions had some players who were effective at it last season, particularly cornerback Deshawn Shead, but they weren’t seeing results.

Coaches kept pushing it. They pointed out players on film who held the ball a certain way, leaving them more susceptible to fumbling. They explained various elements of timing to punch the ball out -- for example, when a player has one hand on the ground, he’s particularly vulnerable to losing the ball with his carrying hand if timed properly.

It all comes from “CPR,” the teaching method defensive backs coach Brian Stewart uses. Rather than a resuscitation technique, club-punch-rip is instead trying to smother opposing drives.

In practice, the Lions will work on a receiver catching the ball, and when a defender closes in, he targets the ball and punches at it. Another drill comes from trying to hit the ball more toward the back, away from where the ball carrier has it gripped.

“It’s just like DBs, we practice punching the ball just as much as we practice attacking the ball and getting interceptions,” Stewart said. “Our linebackers do the same thing.”

A defense-wide focus, how often players attempt it depends on the position. Defensive linemen know they sometimes just need to bring the ball carrier down in a tight space, so trying to get the ball away, too, could cause more problems than anything else.

While some players such as Coleman appear to have a natural predilection for the punch, others have tried to get better at it with practice. When one player does it well and shows success, others try to emulate it.

That the coaching staff reinforces it weekly helps, too, leaving players such as Tracy Walker -- who admitted the punch is “not my forte” -- to become at least serviceable punchers. It leads to more opportunities and, theoretically, more turnovers.

“We have more guys that are just doing it now. That would be the big difference,” cornerback Mike Ford said. “You see more guys in the game just coming, swinging at that ball. I would say that would just be the difference from last year. We still emphasized it and we still focused on turnovers and punching the ball and everything.

“We just brought it more into action this year.”

Coleman started punching because he studied different players over and over again. He watched former Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, known for his Peanut Punch, and tried to pick up idiosyncrasies from repeat viewings. He does that with almost every player in the league whose skill set he admires.

Watch. Digest. Review. See if it fits into his game. Practice it if it does. Discard it if it doesn’t.

“I’ve seen him do it a lot, you know,” Coleman said. “I’m not really getting a lot of interceptions, so I’m going to make a play some other way then. So that was my other way of making a play.”

So far it’s worked. Coleman is the player in the locker room other defensive players look to when they are trying to improve how they dislodge the ball.

Coleman’s punching skill is a combination of instinct, attempts and, yes, even sparring classes he takes occasionally to work on his timing and range. He’s not the only one who says boxing has helped. Ford and defensive lineman Trey Flowers said that has benefitted to their ability to accurately punch out the ball.

“You’re more focused on your target and you got to be more precise when you punch,” said Ford, who boxed as a kid. “You got to be able to see what you punch -- you’re seeing things kind of before they happen, so when you’re seeing the guy running the ball, you’re seeing how he’s carrying it and once you get an eye on it and you’re inside of it, you’re like, ‘All right. Now. Boom.’ Timing.

“Just like if you’re boxing and if he throws a punch and you weave, well, all right, now he’s open. Well, right now is your chance to counterpunch and get that hit.”

It’s something the Lions have thrived with this season.

“It’s just a mentality. You just go for the ball, punch at the ball,” Coleman said. “Sometimes your punch might be inaccurate and might hit another place that might hurt your hand.

“But that’s the risk you take punching at the ball. I feel like you just attack it.”