Every Dolphins defensive back has come to know the first thing they must do every time they enter or leave their meeting room at training camp: reach up and knock down one of the many balls propped up on steel rods around the room.
“You get in the habit of punching them, trying to create turnovers,” safety Jimmy Wilson said. “That’s the emphasis and it’s paying off in camp. The team that gets the most turnovers usually wins the game.”
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who dreamed up the exercise, put a heavy emphasis last season on forcing takeaways, but he had little success. With 16 takeaways and 26 turnovers, Miami’s margin of minus-10 tied for 24th in the league.
“If you ask me, ‘Joe, why were you 7-9 last year?’ the first thing I would say is ‘Minus-10,’ ” coach Joe Philbin said. “That’s a starting point for everything.”
Coyle generally received good grades last season, his first year overseeing Miami’s defense. The Dolphins finished seventh in points allowed (19.8), first in red-zone touchdowns allowed (42.6 percent) and sixth in third-down conversion rate allowed (36.6 percent). But through it all, Coyle was irritated by his unit’s modest number takeaways — 10 interceptions and six fumble recoveries.
“We did emphasize it a year ago,” he said Monday. “We’ve tried to make it even a stronger emphasis as we started back in the spring. Every practice so far we’ve had takeaway drills. In the meetings we’re showing the film, keeping charts on everything the players are doing in terms of getting their hands on the ball, disrupting plays, getting turnovers.
“Sometimes when you start getting takeaways early in the season it snowballs … That’s what we expect to happen this year.”
Coyle, 57, is in his first job as an NFL coordinator but has been coaching for 35 years.
“We are emphasizing it as hard as I’ve done in all the years I’ve been coaching,” he said.
Timing and luck certainly play a role in coming up with loose balls. Secondary coach Lou Anarumo recalled a situation in Buffalo last year. Safety Reshad Jones forced a fumble and, just as Wilson was closing in to scoop it up, an offensive lineman who was lying nearby rolled over and grabbed it.
Other times, luck has nothing to do with it. Anarumo said the Dolphins dropped 17 potential interceptions last season. Miami’s 10 tied Pittsburgh for next-to-last in the AFC.
“We had our opportunities,” Anarumo said. “When they throw it to you, you’ve got to catch it. Have to. It would have been game-changing in certain games. We catch the ones we dropped and we’d have been in the top two or three in the league.”
One of Anarumo’s drills toward that end was on display Sunday. Lining up a few steps from a tackling dummy, defensive backs would make a move and spin into the dummy while being thrown a pass, helping them learn how to catch in traffic just as a receiver does.
“It used to be a drill where we didn’t have a ball,” Anarumo said. “Now the ball is coming.”
The coaches use a machine to fire balls at the DBs.
“The guys are doing a great job, coming out early, getting on the Jugs machine. (Cornerback) Nolan Carroll was out with the quarterbacks catching a few more. We’re all very conscious of it right now.”
If there’s one guy Coyle and Anarumo see taking a leadership role, it’s Jones, who led the team with four interceptions in 2012.
“God has given him great gifts, and one of them is being able to find the ball,” Anarumo said. “He’s got excellent hands. He’s one of the guys that, if the ball is thrown to him, I have all the faith in the world he’s going to catch it.”
When asked how much improvement in the minus-10 stat he would like to see, Philbin replied, “Let’s flip it around for one year.
“You want to be at least plus-1 in every game, so plus-16. That’s a great starting point for me. You win the turnover battle in every game, you’ve got a great chance to win every game.”
For defensive end Cameron Wake, who is in his fifth season with Miami, the time has come to stop talking about takeaways and start creating them.
“It’s an area we have to take to another level,” he said. “If you take the things we did well, and add that to our game, the sky’s the limit.”
DOLPHINS TURNOVER MARGINS
Chad Pennington’s stellar play (17 TD passes, only seven picks) was the key to success in 2008.
The Dolphins haven’t been adept at takeaways since 2008, the last time they made the playoffs.