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That’s the number that hovers deep inside Joe Philbin’s mind like an unwanted visitor. It’s not a number to be proud of, certainly not when you are talking about the total takeaways for a defense in a full NFL season.
Indeed, there is nothing sweet about this 16, tied for fourth worst in the league a season ago.
But the more telling number might just be 17.
That’s how many potential interceptions the Dolphins defense dropped last season. Think about that. Seventeen times the ball was in a defender’s hands and he couldn’t make the play. Seventeen times, for crying out loud!
“We catch those,” said defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo, “and we would have led the NFL. When the quarterback throws the ball to a defensive player, we have to catch it, no ifs, ands or buts.”
It is that paltry number of takeaways combined with that hard-to-fathom number of drops that led to some significant defensive changes heading into this season. Status quo wasn’t working. Upgrades were necessary. The defense was good; just not good enough.
So the changes kept coming. Two young, fast linebackers in Dannell Elerbe and Philip Wheeler. A ball-hawking free agent cornerback in Brent Grimes. A big-play waiting to happen in No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan. And two young cornerbacks, both with resumes filled with takeaways, grabbed in the second and third rounds.
Putting together the pieces of this new-look defense, and emphasizing takeaways, has everything to do with what this training camp is all about. It is why when you walk into a defensive meeting room, there is a football mounted on springs suspended from the wall. As each player walks by, he swipes at that football.
“It’s all about creating a mindset,” Anarumo said. “Strip the ball. Strip it again. It’s becoming more of a habit for us. We want to make it like tying your shoes. Don’t think about it; just do it.”
There are drills every day at practice. There are discussions in the meeting rooms. Lessons are learned by watching tape. But teaching and practicing and swiping footballs in the meeting rooms are one thing; doing it when the score really counts is the real objective.
“The offenses are too good nowadays to allow them to go an entire game without even taking the ball away once,” Anarumo said. “We are focusing on it. We want our players to be obsessed about it.”
Some of it is lousy luck. There was a play last year in Buffalo. Safety Rashad Jones leveled the ball carrier; the ball popped loose. Defensive back Jimmy Wilson is the only upright player that has a chance to recover. It could have been returned to the house.
“But there is an offensive lineman laying on the ground,” Anarumo said. “He happens to roll over on to the ball just before Jimmy gets there. Plays like that are tough to take.”
Opponents fumbled the ball 23 times last season; the Dolphins recovered six. “You just have to make a play when a play comes your way,” said Ellerbe. “
Of all the newcomers on this defense, I believe Grimes will have the biggest impact on takeaways. Not only has he done it in the past, but he shown the Dolphins that, despite a lack of height, he has the physical tools and mindset to be a disruptive force.
You want to hear some powerful words about Grimes: Listen to his defensive backs coach. “His timing on ball skills,” said Anarumo, “and the adjustments he makes in the air is as good as I have seen in my 23 years of coaching.”
Nobody at least publicly is offering specifics about the goal this season for takeaways. Suffice it to say it isn’t anywhere near 16. I’m going to suggest that 25 is a worthy number to shoot for. Philbin would just like to win the turnover battle every game. “I’ll take my chances with that,” he said.
So the five-game preseason schedule starts Sunday night in Canton Ohio and there are all sorts of indicators the Dolphins are looking for.
Big plays on offense. A consistent running game. Coming up with a starting five on the offensive line. All very important. All will have a lot to do with the won-loss record of this team.
But nothing is more paramount than creating takeaways. Nothing will define this defense more. Nothing, each day of training camp, is stressed with more conviction and redundancy.
Sixteen? The Dolphins are sick and tired of that number. And you really get the feeling they are ready to do something about it.
Coming Friday morning in AC in the A.M.: Objectives for the first preseason game.
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