Are great ball hawks born, or are they made? As with all of big questions, the answer is both. Seeing exactly how the NFL's most prolific ball thieves do what they do requires an examination of each pick. That reveals that each of the top ball hawks take advantage of a unique combination of talent, scheme and, yes, luck to run up their interception totals.
How have some of the best ball hawks in the league gotten it done this year?
Tim Jennings, CB, Chicago (Interceptions: 8)
The NFL's current leader in picks has benefited from playing in a defense that allows him to be more aggressive than a typical cornerback. The Bears Cover 2 defense always provides safety help over the top, so Tim Jennings can cheat and be in position to undercut routes, as he is about to do on this play that resulted in an interception against the Rams:
Jennings has been in position to make interceptions in the past, but seven passes defended only yielded one interception in 2010, and 10 PDs only yielded two interceptions last year. This year, Jennings has turned 19 passes defended into eight picks, and he has done it by executing perfectly when he gets the opportunity.
On this interception against the Colts, Jennings is again playing the receiver so that he can undercut the route and snag the ball when it is underthrown, but his leap timing and hands are what really create the interception:
Another one of his interceptions (also against Carolina) highlights his ability to get low and secure the pick by getting both hands under the ball:
Jennings' signature interception this year was a pick-six that turned the tide in a tight home game against the Carolina Panthers. While Jennings didn't miss his shot when the ball was put in his zone, the opportunity here was created by luck, as Steve Smith slipped during the break in his route:
Jennings has had a couple of garbage-time interceptions, and he also had a second interception this year that was created by a receiver slipping in his route. All in all, Jennings' interceptions are almost always a combination of his aggressive playing style that usually allows him to watch the quarterback and place himself in position to take advantage of mistakes.
It's his ability to finish the deal when fortune puts the ball in his hands that has made Jennings the top ball hawk in the league this year.
Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona (Interceptions: 5)
More than playing in an aggressive fashion and thinking interception all of the time, Patrick Peterson's interceptions are created by a rare constellation of physical abilities and the audacity to try to get to balls that few defensive backs would attempt to steal. This interception that gave the team momentum early in their upset of the Patriots combined Peterson's uncanny ability to track a tipped ball and dive under it while running away from the line of scrimmage:
Peterson has had two interceptions that looked very easy because the passer didn't put enough on the pass and release the ball quickly enough to capitalize on the quick separation the receiver had created in his route against Peterson. His closing speed and reaction time are both exceptional, allowing quarterbacks to get away with little hesitation as they scan the defense.
Peterson has looked like a wide receiver on his other two picks, with one requiring him to get both feet down as his momentum was carrying him out of the end zone, and the other asking him to elevate for a deep ball and outfight an opponent for the ball. Peterson gets higher than Chaz Schilens:
And then he quite literally takes the ball from Schilens:
Peterson isn't necessarily gunning for an interception, but he can turn even a slight quarterback error into an interception with the kind of ability that makes a team take a player in the top five of the draft, as Arizona did when they selected Peterson in the first round last year.
Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay (Interceptions: 5)
Casey Hayward hasn't gotten the recognition of Jennings or Peterson, but he has been just as impressive in his punishment of opposing quarterbacks. Hayward is getting his interceptions the old-fashioned way. He sticks to his assignment like glue and reacts well when the ball is thrown his way.
The Packers' rookie corner has one interception on a tip drill ball, and another when he dropped into zone coverage and flashed terrific hands and quick thinking when the quarterback didn't read him on a short crossing pattern into his area.
His other three interceptions were created by terrific coverage and a quarterback who didn't respect the youngster. None were more picturesque than this blanket job on Reggie Wayne. Wayne is turning to run upfield as Andrew Luck is releasing the football:
Hayward's coverage is so good when the ball arrives that he actually blots outs Wayne from the perspective of the Colts sideline. Like Jennings, he also makes the perfect leap and high points the ball naturally:
Hayward isn't the most physically gifted cornerback in the league, like Peterson. He's not in a scheme that allows him to prowl for the interception like Jennings. He just mirrors his man, which puts him in position to make the play more often than most.
Jarius Byrd, S, Buffalo (Interceptions: 5)
It's also instructive to look at one of the best ball-hawking safeties in the league to see the contrast in how they induce the quarterback into giving them the chance to make a momentum-shifting play in the secondary. Jarius Byrd has had two garbage-time interceptions, but his other three picks came at crucial moments, including a pair in an overtime thriller against the Cardinals.
Byrd is the classic center fielder, and he truly has sideline-to-sideline range that is fueled by his instincts and anticipation. Byrd also seems to have more "want to" than many of the receivers that are playing the same ball in flight that Byrd is trying to catch.
On the first pick against Arizona, you can see how the larger tight end, Jeff King, can move to position himself between Byrd and the ball as it is being released:
Byrd is already mid-break, and he ended up beating King to the spot:
How is Byrd able to make such quick and true breaks on the ball? As he is about to pick John Skelton off in overtime of that same game, this striking angle shows us the answer: Byrd is reading the quarterback's eyes:
Whether it's playing for the interception, summoning up elite physical abilities when the play asks you to, mirroring your receiver like you're his shadow or waiting for the quarterback's eyes to direct you to the spot, none of these ball hawks would be successful if they couldn't secure the interception.
More than any one genetic or environmental factor, being able to actually catch the ball when the football gods smile upon you is still the most important quality for any ball hawk.