Baltimore Sun

Punch­ing ’em like ‘Peanut’

Humphrey’s play mir­ror­ing that of ex-CB Till­man

- By Jonas Shaf­fer Sports · College Sports · American Football · NFL Football · Cincinnati · NFL · Jimmy Smith · M&T Bank · Chicago Metropolitan Area, Illinois · Charles Woodson · Barry Sanders · Peyton Manning · Lamar Jackson · Washington · Earl Thomas · Philadelphia Eagles · Philadelphia · Cleveland · Houston Texans · Marcus Peters · Alabama · Pittsburgh Steelers · Pittsburgh · Mike Tyson · Marlon Humphrey · Dwight Freeney · Washington Redskins · Tavon Young

Mid­way through the fourth quar­ter Sun­day, Cincin­nati Ben­gals wide re­ceiver Mike Thomas was run­ning a sim­ple 12-yard curl route when he did the most dan­ger­ous thing imag­in­able for an NFL re­ceiver: He caught a pass near Mar­lon Humphrey.

Ravens de­fen­sive back Jimmy Smith had heard Ben­gals play­ers warn­ing one an­other: Keep the ball tight around No. 44 or else.

In­side line­backer Pa­trick Queen couldn’t be­lieve that any­one would dare test the All-Pro cor­ner­back. He’d seen enough of Humphrey’s vic­tims to know what he would do: just get down.

But Cincin­nati was trail­ing 20-0, and this was Thomas’ first catch of the game. Surely there was no way he could lose the ball, not when he knew Humphrey was be­hind him.

So Thomas se­cured quar­ter­back Joe Bur­row’s sideline throw, started to turn up­field, felt Humphrey wrap him up and then — well, it hap­pened again. There went the ball, bounc­ing on the M&T Bank Sta­dium grass,

punched loose by the best player on the NFL’s most dis­rup­tive de­fense.

Seven-hun­dred miles away, Charles “Peanut” Till­man chuck­led.

“I won­der what the in­spi­ra­tion was?” the for­mer Bears All-Pro cor­ner­back joked in an interview Wed­nes­day from the Chicago sub­urbs. “Re­ally, it’s just like, ‘Dang, they’re do­ing it. It’s about time.’ ”

Who bet­ter to eval­u­ate the NFL’s reign­ing punch-out king than the man af­ter whom they named the punch? From 2003 to 2015, Till­man forced 44 fum­bles, al­most dou­ble the num­ber of the next-best player in that span (Charles Wood­son, with 23).

Barry San­ders had his jump cut, Dwight Freeney had his spin move, Pey­ton Man­ning had his pres­nap au­di­bles, but only Till­man’s take­away tal­ent was such that he got an epony­mous honor: the “Peanut Punch.”

For a time af­ter Till­man’s re­tire­ment, Josh Norman was his spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor. Now Humphrey is next in line. His knock­out skills — an NFL-high three forced fum­bles in five games — have made him one of the league’s most feared and best-paid cornerback­s in just his fourth sea­son, a De­fen­sive Player of the Year can­di­date whose right hand can seem just as po­tent as La­mar Jack­son’s.

“Any­time I’m around the ball, I just try to do some­thing, whether it’s a tackle [or] an in­ter­cep­tion,” Humphrey said Nov. 4, af­ter he forced a fum­ble in a win against the

Wash­ing­ton Foot­ball Team. “How­ever we can get a turnover, it’s big for the team.

“We have an­a­lyt­ics guys that show if you can get a turnover here, it equates to this many points and all these dif­fer­ent things. So the big­gest thing that you can have on de­fense is a de­fense that cre­ates turnovers, whether it’s an in­ter­cep­tion or a forced fum­ble or a sack — that’s not a turnover, but it’s still big. What­ever I can do and what­ever the de­fense can do to get a turnover is al­ways huge.”

Even with the Au­gust re­lease of Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas III and loss of top nickel back Tavon Young (torn ACL), Humphrey and the Ravens (4-1) keep com­ing up with the ball. The de­fense has forced a turnover in 18 straight games en­ter­ing Sun­day’s matchup with the Philadelph­ia Ea­gles (1-3-1), the NFL’s long­est ac­tive such streak and the sec­ond-long­est in franchise his­tory.

The Ravens trail only the Cleve­land Browns (12) this sea­son in to­tal take­aways (10). Humphrey has four of them, in­clud­ing an in­ter­cep­tion on the Browns’ sea­sonopen­ing drive. But his big­gest plays have come when he’s got­ten only one hand — or fist — on the ball.

In Week 2, Humphrey landed a right hook against un­sus­pect­ing Hous­ton Texans wide re­ceiver Keke Coutee, jar­ring the ball loose af­ter a short re­cep­tion. In­side line­backer L.J. Fort re­cov­ered the fum­ble and re­turned it 22 yards for a touch­down.

In Week 4, Humphrey sized up Wash­ing­ton’s J.D. McKis­sic in the flat af­ter a check-down from quar­ter­back Dwayne Haskins Jr. Af­ter wrap­ping up the run­ning back, then jump­ing on his back, Humphrey ripped the ball out with his left hand.

Cor­ner­back Marcus Peters pounced on the loose ball, and the Ravens scored two plays later.

Sun­day’s “Peanut Punch,” though, might have been Humphrey’s most re­mark­able yet. As he grabbed the Ben­gals’ Thomas from be­hind, Humphrey kept his left arm around his bounty, then wound up his right hand for a shot. All Humphrey could see were the num­bers on the back of Thomas’ jersey, but he knew where the ball might be.

A blind jab be­came a knock­out, a knock­out be­came a fum­ble and a fum­ble be­came a 53-yard scoop-and-score for Queen.

“I think there’s a lot more to come,” out­side line­backer Per­nell McPhee said af­ter Sun­day’s 27-3 win. “He’s a ball hawk. Best cor­ner­back in the league.”

“To have [three] forced fum­bles in five games, and two to go back for touch­downs, are huge plays,” Smith said Wed­nes­day. “They’re in­ter­cep­tions, if you will. They weigh the same. They’re still turnovers. They’re still touch­downs. … ‘Peanut’ Till­man is the last per­son that re­ally con­sis­tently could knock the ball out, and you had to be aware of that.”

Humphrey is not some Peanut-come­lately. At Alabama, he forced three fum­bles in two years, in­clud­ing two on punch-outs. Over his first three NFL sea­sons, Humphrey had three forced fum­bles, none more im­por­tant than an over­time punch-out against Pitts­burgh Steel­ers wide re­ceiver JuJu Smith-Schus­ter in a Week 5 win last sea­son.

At Ravens prac­tices, take­aways are a watch­word. The de­fense keeps a run­ning tally of forced fum­bles. The only per­son who pri­or­i­tizes punch-outs more than co­or­di­na­tor Don “Wink” Martin­dale might be Mike Tyson.

But only a few de­fend­ers have the knack for it that Till­man did. He started prac­tic­ing the tech­nique in high school, his long arms and big hands mak­ing per­fect tools for a mid­play rob­bery. When Till­man looked at film, he would study how re­ceivers held the ball. He knew the weak spots, un­der­stood the an­gles. Af­ter a while, Till­man said, the mov­ing tar­gets started to slow down.

“The more I did it, the more I prac­ticed it, the bet­ter I got at fig­ur­ing out which way [to go], what tech­nique to use: my left arm? My right arm?” Till­man said. “I just kind of played with it.”

Till­man com­pared the skill to a boxer’s. “I just knew where to hit or where to punch or when to strike. I’m wait­ing, wait­ing … now,” he said, his voice ris­ing like an up­per­cut. He had to be care­ful; ev­ery punch left him vul­ner­a­ble in some way.

But Til­man’s hit rate — he had a sea­son-high 10 forced fum­bles in 2012, in­clud­ing four in one game — was all the more re­mark­able be­cause of how rarely it com­pro­mised his tack­ling abil­ity.

No two op­por­tu­ni­ties were the same. When he was fly­ing in from the blind side, Till­man’s goal was sim­ple: see ball, strike ball. When ball car­ri­ers took him on in the open field, Till­man em­braced the pos­si­bil­i­ties. He felt he was al­ready two steps ahead.

“You don’t just get out there and throw a hay­maker,” he said. “It’s jab, jab. You throw a cou­ple com­bos, and you’re wait­ing to set that de­fender up, that fighter up, that op­po­nent up. And then, at the last sec­ond, you shoot your shot.”

 ?? ERIC CHRIS­TIAN SMITH/AP ?? Ravens cor­ner­back Mar­lon Humphrey forces Texans wide re­ceiver Keke Coutee to fum­ble dur­ing the first half of their Week 2 game.
ERIC CHRIS­TIAN SMITH/AP Ravens cor­ner­back Mar­lon Humphrey forces Texans wide re­ceiver Keke Coutee to fum­ble dur­ing the first half of their Week 2 game.

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