PHILADELPHIA — Only three NFL defenses allowed more yards than the Miami Dolphins in 2016.
But when you close your eyes and think about Miami’s defense last season, that’s not what comes to mind.
What comes to mind is Kiko Alonso intercepting Philip Rivers in a tie game at San Diego with just over a minute to play and seconds later strutting in the end zone after the game-winning score.
What comes to mind is the five times Cameron Wake forced a fumble (often after drilling a quarterback) or the four times Byron Maxwell forced a fumble (often while using his patented punch).
The Dolphins will practice against the Eagles here on Monday and Tuesday and play a preseason game on Thursday. And for Alonso and Maxwell, it’s a chance to see former Eagles teammates and to show Philly a bit of what they’re missing.
Maxwell seemed a bit bitter recently about the way his Philly tenure ended and so it would stand to reason he might try to punch a football or two out of the arms of a ball carrier this week.
“You see a little air and you just go for it,” Maxwell said last December. “You might get it. Who knows.”
When Matt Burke was promoted from Dolphins linebackers coach to defensive coordinator this off-season, he made it clear that points allowed, third-down stops, red-zone stops and turnovers are far more important than yards allowed.
“Those are the things that we are going to try to hang our hat on,” Burke said.
When coach Adam Gase was recently asked to describe what he hopes the identity of his 2017 defense will be, he made sure to include a reference to turnovers.
“I believe we’re going to be a defense that’s going to be tough, relentless,” Gase said. “The one thing that I would say that I want to see us do more is get our hands on balls and get balls out, get turnovers, turn into an opportunistic defense.”
Gase believes that Alonso (with four forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2016) and free-agent linebacker addition Lawrence Timmons (with 13 career forced fumbles and 12 career interceptions) have the ball skills to wreak havoc.
One of the ways the Dolphins were able to win 10 games and make the playoffs despite some terribly negative statistics (such as being outscored by 17 points for the season) was opportune turnovers.
In fact, Miami was tied for 11th overall in the NFL with 25 takeaways.
Only eight teams had more interceptions than Miami, with 16.
To be fair, Miami’s defense was on the field for way too many plays. And on the downside, two of the teams’ best interceptors will not play in 2016: cornerback Tony Lippett (four interceptions) is out for the season with a torn achilles and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus (two interceptions) sustained a career-ending neck/shoulder injury.
On the bright side, Miami’s defense recorded two interceptions in its last preseason game (corners Cordrea Tankersley and Xavien Howard) and forced two fumbles (both, unsurprisingly, by Maxwell).
“When I’m out there I try to turn it over because we can change the game,” Howard said Thursday. “Help the offense out. Create good field position. So I’m just trying to make plays and get the ball back to the offense.”
Coaches often speak in cliches.
Keys to win the game?
Establish the run. Stop the run. Win the turnover battle.
It’s cliche, because it’s true.
Until The Daily Dolphin looked it up, it had no idea the Dolphins were 6-1 last season when they had a turnover advantage and 2-5 when they gave more than they took.
But in retrospect, it makes sense.
Consider dramatic, late-season wins against San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Arizona.
In those four games during a five-week stretch:
• Alonso had the game-winning interception against San Diego; forced and recovered a fumble against Los Angeles and had an interception and a fumble recovery against San Francisco.
• Maxwell had an interception against San Diego and forced a fumble against San Francisco.
• Lipett had two interceptions against San Diego.
• Wake and Andre Branch had forced fumbles and Mike Hull and Baccari Rambo had interceptions against Arizona.
It is obvious that Miami will reason with quarterback Jay Cutler to protect the football. With Gase in Chicago in 2015, Cutler posted only 11 interceptions and 8 fumbles, a vast improvement from 2014 (18 interceptions, 12 fumbles).
Miami may once again give up more yards on defense than is ideal in 2017, but the team will hope to overcome sustained drives with timely, game-changing turnovers.
“Just getting hands on the football,” Miami cornerback Bobby McCain said. “That’s what I want to do. That’s what we want to do as a team. The more turnovers we have, the more chances the offense gets to score, and that’s how we look at it. Being able to create turnovers, being able to get hands on the football, that can make you championship team.”
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