A goal-line interception at Miami Dolphins practice Monday prompted shouts of delight on defense and a collective sag of the shoulders on offense. There was no expression of either celebration or frustration by coach Joe Philbin, who instead impassively looked at his shoes.
"The initial reaction," Philbin said later, "is that from an offensive standpoint, we've got to do a better job. Conversely, on defense it's fantastic."
Improving turnover differential is Philbin's top priority in training camp. Defensive players are encouraged to take frequent swipes at footballs hanging from the walls of team meeting rooms, and many of Miami's offseason moves were made to increase takeaways or reduce turnovers.
The Dolphins tied for fourth-worst in the NFL last year with 16 takeaways, and also ranked in the league's second division with 26 turnovers. That differential of minus-10 tied for eighth-worst.
"If you ask me why we were 7-9 last year, I would say minus-10," Philbin said. "That's the starting point of everything. It's the starting point of our offense, and it's the starting point of our defense."
The Dolphins have endured four consecutive losing seasons, and during that span they're minus-36 in turnover differential, worst in the NFL. Miami chases reigning AFC East champion New England both in the standings and in turnover differential, where the Patriots led the league in 2012 at plus-25.
In an attempt to gain ground, the Dolphins parted with running back Reggie Bush, cornerback Sean Smith and linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. Bush was benched during one game last year for fumbling, Smith dropped too many potential interceptions, and Dansby and Burnett combined for zero interceptions and fumble recoveries.
The Dolphins added linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, defensive end Dion Jordan and cornerback Brent Grimes. The Dolphins believe Wheeler, Ellerbe and top draft pick Jordan will create more turnovers with their speed and blitzing ability, while Grimes has 13 career interceptions.
Friday's exhibition victory at Jacksonville hinted at progress. Miami's defense recovered two fumbles and made two interceptions, while the offense committed only one turnover. Last year the Dolphins enjoyed a turnover advantage in only five games — and won them all.
A year of experience for Ryan Tannehill should help. He started all 16 games as a rookie last year, and was the only passer among the top 30 to finish with more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (12).
"Ryan is going to make considerable strides this year," said former Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, who has worked with Tannehill. "I think what he learned last year is that in the NFL, there are more games lost than won.
"When you look at the games the Dolphins won last year, Ryan didn't have outstanding stats, but they were good solid stats. And sometimes when he threw for big yards, you'd look at the turnovers, and that's what cost them the game. That's what I think he has learned the most — that he doesn't have to look pretty, but it has to be effective and efficient and consistent."
For Philbin, the bigger issue last year was the dearth of takeaways. The Dolphins had none in half of their games.
Cornerbacks made only three interceptions while linebackers were shut out, and Philbin counted 17 potential picks that were dropped. The Dolphins forced 23 fumbles but recovered only six, reflecting a lack of speed chasing loose balls.
Wheeler, Ellerbe and Jordan make Miami faster. The team's strength is a defensive front four that's expected to generate plenty of pressure on quarterbacks. Grimes and third-round draft pick Will Davis have been ball hawks in practice, so there are signs the situation will improve this year.
"You have to make a play when the play comes your way," Ellerbe said. "It's nothing that's just going to come to you. You can't drop picks, and you have to knock the ball out of the quarterback's hands when you get sacks. It's something you have to practice and bring to the game."
Ellerbe and other players say they've never been in a training camp with so much emphasis on turnovers. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle concurred, and this is his 13th NFL season.
The Dolphins chart everything players do in practice to create or commit turnovers. They show defensive players videotape of every fumble caused last year by the teams best at takeaways — New England, Chicago and Cincinnati. They stress that the goal in every game is to have an edge in turnovers, because that usually means an edge in the final score.
"It's going to be a big emphasis all year," Philbin said. "To get our program turned around, that's the No. 1 focus for us on both sides of the ball. That will help our won-loss record more than any play design we can come up with or anything like that."
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