The Titans, Frank Gore and … bags of dung

The Titans rank second in the NFL in turnover differential and a key to their success has been their ability to force fumbles: Tennessee is tied for fourth in the league in fumbles caused (11) and recovered (7).

Their success at stripping the ball has caught the attention of Jim Harbaugh in advance of the 49ers’ visit to Nashville on Sunday.

“They’re the best we’ve seen at clubbing, punching, stripping, lawn-mowering, just lodging it out from opponents,” Harbaugh told the Tennessee media. “It’s always a critical thing to our well-being to have ball security and not turn the ball over. It’s emphasized weekly, daily, but, yes, this week we have to emphasize it even more.”

On Sunday, running back Frank Gore figures to test Tennessee’s ability to club, punch, strip and, yes, lawn-mower. In 103 carries this season, Gore has lost just one fumble. That came when he had the ball punched out from behind by Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree at the end of a 13-yard run in Week 4.

That was a lost fumble on the stat sheet. In Harbaugh’s parlance, however, letting your guard down and allowing a defender to force a fumble is, well … let’s just have Jim explain: “When that happens to Frank, you’re not going to sneak up on Frank again and hit him over the head with a bag of dung a second time.”
Based on recent history, Harbaugh is correct: Gore was walloped upside the helmet with a sack of stinky stuff (read: lost a fumble) just once in 2012.

In fact, Gore, who was known as a fumbler early in his career, has become quite sure-handed. His only lost fumble last year – in a Week 3 loss at Minnesota – snapped a career-best streak in which he hadn’t lost a fumble in 255 touches.

In the past, Harbaugh has credited running backs coach Tom Rathman for teaching proper ball-carrying fundamentals, saying he does “as good a job any of us have ever seen done in that regard.”

The numbers suggest Rathman knows what he’s doing.

In his first four seasons, Gore averaged a fumble every 61.7 offensive touches (18 in 1,111). Since Rathman joined the staff in 2009, Gore has averaged a fumble every 94.1 touches (13 in 1,223). Similarly, Rathman appears to have helped cure Kendall Hunter’s college case of fumbleitis. Hunter, who had 10 fumbles at Oklahoma State, has one fumble in 241 offensive touches in his NFL career.

Gore and Hunter’s ability to hold onto the ball figures to be tested against the Titans, who are adept at lawn-mowering, perhaps the second-best offering from Harbaugh’s lexicon this week.

“(Securing the ball is) always a special point of emphasis, always something that is vital, critical to a team’s well-being,” Harbaugh said. “… If it’s 10 out of 10 every week, it’s 11 out of 10 this week. It’s very important.”

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