DAVIE (CBSMiami/AP) — Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin returned to practice on Thursday after traveling back to Massachusetts earlier in the week for the funeral of his father, Paul Philbin, who passed away on Friday at the age of 93.
Philbin missed Tuesday and Wednesday’s practice but was back with the team Thursday morning and ran all meetings and practice.
“It’s great to be back,” said Philbin following Thursday’s practice. “It’s great to be on the practice field. When you get into coaching, you have two families. You have your family and you have your football family. I’m very fortunate. We’ve got a great organization here and it’s great to be back.”
During Philbin’s absence, coordinators Bill Lazor and Kevin Coyle ran the team’s practices.
Coyle has been doing a great job with Miami’s defense so far this season. Philbin and Coyle have continuously stressed the importance of creating turnovers, and the Dolphins defense has been answering the bell.
“You can’t always control every single bounce that the ball takes,” said Philbin. “Certainly, you want to work on it. Even though sometimes you’re in a controlled setting when you practice and, as we all know, it’s not controlled when the ball’s out.”
The Dolphins practice stripping the ball, defensive backs drill daily on interceptions and coaches constantly carp about the need for takeaways, just like every other team every season.
So why are the Dolphins only recently forcing a flurry of turnovers?
“I wish there was a magic formula,” third-year defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. “It has been a point of emphasis since the day we got here. Now we’re just starting to see it.”
The Dolphins (5-3) have forced 10 turnovers over the past three games, their best such stretch of takeaways since 2004, helping them take a three-game winning streak to Detroit on Sunday.
Because Miami’s offense has been holding onto the ball, the result is a turnover differential of plus-6 this season. That’s tied for sixth in the NFL, and especially notable because the Dolphins haven’t finished a season in the plus column since 2008.
Not coincidentally, that’s the last time they made the playoffs. From 2009 to 2013 the Dolphins were a minus-38 in turnover differential, worst in the NFL, according to STATS.
“It has been a battle,” Coyle said.
Lately the turnover tide has turned, and a ball-hawking secondary has produced the AFC Defensive Player of the Week each of the past two weeks — Louis Delmas and Brent Grimes. Grimes is tied for second in the NFL with four interceptions, and safety Reshad Jones has two interceptions in four games since returning from a suspension.
But the biggest improvement has been in fumble recoveries. The Dolphins have nine, compared with six in all of 2013.
Among the game-changing plays by the defense have been an 81-yard interception return by Delmas, a 50-yard fumble return by Cortland Finnegan, and a 22-yard interception return by Grimes, all for touchdowns.
While every team works to force turnovers, coach Philbin’s emphasis on takeaways in practice has made a difference, defensive tackle Jared Odrick said.
“It really has been stellar,” Odrick said. “There’s a concerted effort — specific drills on stripping the ball and interception returns and blocking for them and putting yourself in position to grab a loose ball. Last year we created a lot of fumbled balls but didn’t recover them. We put an emphasis on it all offseason and all season, and it becomes second nature.”
Odrick is part of a ferocious pass rush, another factor in creating turnovers. The Dolphins are tied for fifth in the league with 25 sacks.
“It starts up front,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “They’re doing a great job of putting pressure on quarterbacks. Even if they’re not sacking them, they’re hitting them and making it tough to see. And in their back end, guys are just making plays.”
As a result, the Dolphins are tied for second in the league with 18 takeaways. This is the first time in a decade that they’ve totaled 10 or more in a three-game stretch.
“You hear people talk about how they tend to come in bunches,” Coyle said. “Once you get them, there is an expectation level and a confidence level. It’s not, ‘Oh, we need to get one.’ It’s like, ‘When are we going to get the next one?’ That’s the feeling you have on the sideline right now. You’re not pressing to get a turnover, you’re just expecting good plays to happen.”
“One turnover is flammable,” he said. “Two is more flammable. It keeps igniting more and more.”
That’s true on offense, too, but the Dolphins have committed more turnovers than the opposition only once in the past six games. Ryan Tannehill has one interception in his past 115 throws.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said Tannehill has made fewer bad passes lately because he has had time to throw behind Miami’s improved line.
“It starts with protection,” Lazor said. “When the quarterback is getting hit a lot, before he throws it or after he throws it, you are going to have turnovers.”
During their three-game winning streak, the Dolphins have committed just one turnover. They’re plus-9 in turnover differential over that stretch, the best they’ve done in a three-game span since 1998, according to STATS.
“If you don’t get it done this Sunday,” Finnegan said, “all those things don’t matter.”
Watch Miami take on the Detroit Lions this Sunday at 1 p.m. on CBS4, your official Dolphins station!
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