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, and 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 they named the punch after? 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 trying to be around the ball, I just try to do something, whether it’s a tackle, whatever it is, an interception,” Humphrey said Oct. 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. So 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 the loss of top nickelback Tavon Young (torn ACL), Humphrey and the Ravens (4-1) still 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' season-opening 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, he ripped the ball out with his left hand, as if he were starting a lawn mower. 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. So, yes, MVP. Best cornerback in the league. Him and [Peters].”
“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-come-lately. 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? Should I come this way? Should I punch up down? Should I punch down? Should I go through?” 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.”
In retirement, Tillman’s legacy seems to grow with every punch-out. On “SportsCenter” last month, a Marshall defensive back was honored with the weekend’s best “Peanut Punch.” On NFL broadcasts, commentators regularly invoke his name after forced fumbles. When Tillman acknowledged Humphrey’s Week 2 punch-out on Twitter with two emoji — a peanut and a boxing glove, of course — a follower asked him whether he’s owed any royalties.
Tillman, a Pro Football Hall of Fame nominee, treats the attention as a proud father would. It’s long been his hope that his name and his game would endure. (Asked what he thought of a proposed “Fruit Punch” nickname for Humphrey’s punch-outs, an homage to Humphrey’s previous Twitter handle, Tillman quipped, “Are we going to change ‘You got Mossed’ to ‘You got Humphreyed’?”)
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If Tillman was in any way an inspiration to Humphrey, he hopes that Humphrey can now show a path forward for other defenders looking to cause trouble. Take it from the guy they named the move after: “This stuff actually works,” Tillman said, “if you punch it out.”