Encourage turnovers? Miami Dolphins' defense makes a game of it

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The points board just stares at Miami Dolphins defensive backs during meetings. They can't help but take a peek and measure their stock against that of teammates. It has become a daily ritual.

In a unique offseason shaped by the coronavirus pandemic, the absence of preseason games and limited in-person interaction outside of on-field practices, new Dolphins defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander sought a way to emphasize turnovers and getting hands on the ball in a fun, competitive fashion. That's how the point system and the two-part game that lasted throughout training camp were born.

The first part of the game is an interception-focused contest between two teams drafted by the players at the start of camp. Safety Bobby McCain is the captain of one squad and cornerback Byron Jones leads the other. If one team gets more interceptions at practice, the other team has to do 25 push-ups. If the teams tie with one or more interceptions, coaches have to do 25 push-ups. If there are no interceptions, both teams have to do 25 push-ups.

The second part of the game is the cornerbacks vs. the safeties -- the competition that makes the points system come alive. Players get five points for an interception; three points for a scoop -- on fumble recoveries or incomplete passes; and one point for a PBU -- or pass breakup. But beware, it's minus-five points for a dropped interception.

"It's getting them mindful of -- it's all about the ball. Everything we do, every technique, every detailed coaching point that we give them and every defensive scheme, is all about getting the ball," Alexander said. "You start to see that energy, that competitiveness among those guys at practice doing the little things that reward points. At the same time, I'm trying to build culture. I'm trying to build a way of behaving in the defensive back room.

"It's been fun, it's been competitive; but there is some method to the madness about how we operate out there in the secondary in particular."

Headed into Sunday's season opener at New England (1 p.m. ET, CBS), the Dolphins' defense is tasked with defending Cam Newton and a new-look New England Patriots offense. Miami got more physical and experienced in the front seven by adding Kyle Van Noy, Shaq Lawson, Emmanuel Ogbah and Raekwon Davis, but the highest-paid and arguably most talented group on the defense is the defensive backs. The Dolphins' defense might be as good as its coverage guys make it.

Miami finished tied for 29th in takeaways and 27th in turnover differential last season. Dolphins coach Brian Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer believe turnover margin is the biggest determining factor in wins and losses. The Dolphins need to dramatically improve their numbers, though.

This is a secondary with at least three returning starters -- McCain, Xavien Howard, Eric Rowe -- but it's the second year getting comfortable in Flores' scheme. With two key additions -- Jones and first-round pick cornerback Noah Igbinoghene -- the hope is the defensive backs can be the team's strongest unit.

"That's really what we want to focus our game on is just being ball hawks," McCain said. "It's just something fun to do in the room, man."

Needham, a fifth-round pick on McCain's team, added: "It's mainly focused on getting to the ball. We're trying to get a pick, but also if you drop a pick, that's minus-five as well. That's a missed opportunity, so we'll be holding everybody accountable. If the ball touches your hands, you need to make a play on it."

Players light up when discussing the points board. It's a college-style game for NFL guys, but it encourages the right principles. Early returns have been positive thus far with the secondary generally holding up well against the offense, though wide receivers DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant and Malcolm Perry have made their share of highlight plays.

Alexander, who is in his first NFL coaching gig after three seasons as the defensive backs coach at the University of California, believes his background provides a fresh feel to coaching in the league. He spent five years playing safety in the NFL and also spent the 2019 training camp with the Dolphins as a Bill Walsh coaching fellow.

"It's been one of those things that kind of broke up the monotony of training camp a little bit, even though it's probably shorter than it ever has been. The guys love it, and it's a good deal out there at practice," Alexander said. "My responsibility is to create different ways of operating here ... What we do out there is a grind and there is fun in it."

So, which team won? The cornerbacks beat the safeties in the group competition. McCain won the individual competition with the most points, but his team was defeated by Jones' squad in the other competition.

Beyond crowning winners, the Dolphins hope they see the true merits of this fun competition during the regular season, starting Sunday in Foxborough, Massachusetts.