DAVIE, Fla. (AP) - To begin practice, the Miami Dolphins defense broke into groups at three so-called strip stations, where the goal was to pry the ball away from the running backs.
The drill sent a message from new coach Joe Philbin to the team's tacklers: Loose balls win games.
"That's something we've been keying on," defensive end Cameron Wake says. "The priority maybe has changed."
While enduring three consecutive losing seasons, the Dolphins ranked last in the NFL in takeaways with 59.
Coincidence? They don't think so.
"We've got to start finding a way to win the turnover margin," Philbin says. "That's the way to give yourself a chance."
The Dolphins go into Sunday's opener at Houston lightly regarded because they're relying on rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill to lead an offense that lacks playmakers. But the defense should be solid, and if the unit can start shaking the ball free more frequently, Miami might exceed expectations.
Last year the Dolphins totaled three fumble recoveries, the fewest in the league. They tied for sixth-worst with 19 takeaways.
"It's critical to change it," new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle says. "We are emphasizing it, I think, in everything we do. I don't think there's another team in the NFL that spends more time on takeaways than we do."
But as Coyle notes, improvement has yet to come. Miami didn't come up with a single interception during the exhibition season - and went 0-4.
Even with all of their losing, the Dolphins understand the value of picking off passes and recovering fumbles. Over the past three years they're 11-6 when they come up with at least two takeaways, and 9-22 when they don't.
"There were a lot of areas we had success in - stopping the run, getting to the quarterback - but takeaways are a very big stat when it comes to winning and losing," Wake says.
Aside from Jason Taylor, who retired after last season, the Dolphins have simply lacked players who show a nose for the ball.
Wake, a Pro Bowl starter in 2010, has neither a fumble recovery nor an interception in his three NFL seasons. Linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett have not a single fumble recovery in a combined 46 games with the Dolphins. Their three returning starters in the secondary combined for three interceptions last year.
If it's true turnovers come in bunches, Miami's defense is way overdue.
"It's like a snowball rolling downhill," Coyle says. "Once they start happening and the confidence grows, it seems that the teams I've been with, you just expect it, and good things happen."
The pass rush can be a catalyst by disrupting the rhythm of the offense and putting it in long-yardage, higher-risk situations. And Miami's defensive front seven is expected to be the team's strength.
"Everything starts with the pass rush - I like to think that, at least," says Wake, who has 28 sacks in three NFL seasons. "But it's a team effort, and not just having a mind-set of, 'OK, I'm going to tackle him.' You want to tackle him, and the second guy can strip the ball."
Few things would help Tannehill more. The Dolphins don't have a quick-strike offense, so good field position for the rookie quarterback will be paramount.
"We have all the confidence in Tannehill," cornerback Richard Marshall says. "But at the same time we understand that he's a rookie, and rookies make mistakes. The more we can get him the ball, the more he'll have opportunities to score. We've got to get him the ball and watch him do what he does."
Philbin was the offensive coordinator at Green Bay last year, and his unit was the beneficiary of 38 takeaways by the Packers' defense, the most in the NFL.
Green Bay went 15-1 to win its division, and Philbin figures takeaways can help provide Miami with a path to the playoffs, too.
"That's a big part of what we do," he says, "and the type of team we want to be."
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