The reminders are everywhere, from the coach’s opening speech of training camp to the footballs hanging tantalizingly from the meeting room walls.
“We’re supposed to strip the balls hanging off the walls in the meeting rooms, behind the doorstop,” linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said.
It’s all part of a not-so-subliminal message: The Dolphins simply must generate more turnovers than they did a season ago.
“They’ve been emphasizing that more,” safety Reshad Jones said.
Coach Joe Philbin said every defensive personnel move this offseason was made with two thoughts in mind: Produce more turnovers and allow fewer big plays.
He emphasized both points when his team convened for training camp Saturday.
“To get our program turn around, that’s the No. 1 focus for us on both sides of the ball,” he said after speaking about explosive passing plays and turnovers. “That will help our won-loss record more than any play design we can come up with or anything like that.”
The Dolphins’ 16 takeaways were tied with Dallas for fourth fewest in the league last season, with only the Colts (15), Chiefs and Eagles (13 apiece) producing fewer.
Their 10 interceptions were tied for the fourth fewest, and their six fumble recoveries were tied for sixth fewest. What’s exasperating is the Dolphins were in position to secure far more of each.
This is difficult to explain: Dolphins opponents fumbled 23 times last season, but Miami recovered only six of them. By comparison, Dolphins opponents grabbed 13 of Miami’s 23 fumbles.
And Philbin told his team that the Dolphins dropped 17 potential interceptions last season.
So it’s no surprise the Dolphins have spent considerable time in camp on ball-stripping drills.
New linebackers Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler said they have done similar drills with their former teams and believe they have value.
“That’s very important — slapping the ball and repeating it,” Wheeler said.
But can creating turnovers be a learned skill? Ellerbe said yes.
“You have to make a play when the play comes your way,” Ellerbe said. “You can’t drop picks. You have to knock the ball out of the quarterback’s hands when you get sacks. It’s just something you have to practice.”
The Dolphins signed Ellerbe and Wheeler to replace Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett with the belief their speed and athleticism would help generate more turnovers.
But this is notable: In 46 career games, Ellerbe has just one forced fumble and one interception. Wheeler has four forced fumbles and no interceptions in 77 games.
By comparison, Dansby has 15 forced fumbles and 11 interceptions in 136 games, and Burnett has seven and four in 120 games.
Cornerback Dimitri Patterson said creating takeaways starts with the mind.
“It’s about recognition,” he said. “You have to make it a priority to recognize formations. You can strip the ball all day, but you are spinning your wheels if you aren’t able to recognize formations.”
Patterson said he believes the Dolphins have defensive backs capable of doing that.
The other defensive emphasis is curtailing explosive plays by opposing offenses, especially in the passing game. The Dolphins allowed 60 plays of 20 yards or more last season, tied with the Giants for fourth most behind the Patriots (74), Buccaneers (69) and Saints (66).
Philbin said defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle pointed out a similar statistic to players during their first meeting of camp.
“If you look statistically, we did well on defense, [but] that certainly was not one of [the reasons why],” Philbin said.
Though the Dolphins allowed far too many plays of between 20 and 39 yards, they allowed only six plays of 40 yards or more. Only seven teams allowed fewer.
Some of the big plays resulted from mental breakdowns, others from physical errors.
“It was a little bit of everything,” Jones said. “It’s hard to pinpoint. We don’t want to give up any big plays.”
Besides some big plays by receivers, some skilled tight ends also gave the Dolphins trouble. The Dolphins hope Wheeler and Ellerbe will be more effective covering them than Dansby and Burnett were.
The problem is that the Dolphins face a stronger group of quarterbacks than they did a season ago.
Unlike last season, Miami must contend with the Saints’ Drew Brees, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, the Ravens’ Joe Flacco, the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, the Chargers’ Phillip Rivers and the Panthers’ Cam Newton.
That’s worrisome for a defense that allowed the league’s sixth-most passing yards (3,974), despite playing several teams with mediocre quarterback play, including four games against the Jets and Bills (who naturally will play the Dolphins four times again this season), Tennessee, Arizona, Oakland and Jacksonville.
The good news is that the Dolphins allowed the league’s ninth-best completion percentage (58.8).