Rams still sorting out safeties
by Nick Wagoner
Mere minutes into last week’s game against Kansas City, Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins hit Chiefs receiver Jonathan Baldwin as he hauled in a pass for an apparent 7-yard gain.
Jenkins’ hit jarred the ball loose and Rams free safety Craig Dahl came in to scoop it up to get it back for his team deep in Kansas City territory.
On the sideline, Darian Stewart was one of the first to burst out into cheers for Dahl. Although he was on the sideline because of a hamstring injury and his direct competition for the starting free safety job had just made a big play, any other type of reaction never occurred to Stewart.
“Anytime my teammate is doing good I just cheer him on,” Stewart said. “We are all on the same team, we are all trying to win and get to the same place. So anytime someone makes a good play I am just as happy as if I made it.”
In the opening stages of this year’s training camp, there was no clearer competition for a starting job than the one at free safety. While positions such as left guard and right tackle had competition, they weren’t as obvious as free safety.
That’s because in the first week or so of camp, Rams coach Jeff Fisher had Stewart and Dahl rotating each day with the first defensive unit. If Monday was Dahl’s turn, Tuesday was Stewart’s and so on.
Fisher made it clear both would get a fair and equal chance to earn the job and he gave it to them right away along with a pretty simple explanation of what he wanted to see from the eventual winner.
“What you're looking for first is a thorough understanding of the defense, and for them to be interchangeable at both positions — strong safety, free safety,” Fisher said. “And then you've got to be a complete player. You've got to be a run defender, good tackler, and you've got to be able to play in space, break a pass up.”
Since that time, Stewart suffered his injury and it set him back in the battle for the spot. Day after day, it’s been Dahl that’s taken his spot playing center field in the defense alongside strong safety Quintin Mikell.
In the first two preseason games, it was Dahl who got the start and played all the way through with the first team defense and even beyond. Stewart spent those games in street clothes, frustrated not only to fall behind in the competition but simply because he couldn’t play.
“Yeah, anytime you are out of practice and not in a groove with your teammates, it’s frustrating,” Stewart said. “You try to get back out there as soon as you can and get back to work.”
Dahl, on the other hand, didn’t spend any of his time thinking about the competition. Instead, he spent it doing everything possible to acclimate to the new defensive scheme brought forth by Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis.
Figuring that if he learned the defense in short order he could make more of an impact on the field, Dahl has tried to be detail oriented in becoming a better player. If that happens, the rest will take care of itself.
“I have to just continue to improve,” Dahl said. “There are definitely areas of my game where I need to improve and Darian has some great skills and hopefully he can come back from this injury and help us out and push me and make our defense better. That’s all I’m concerned about.”
Stewart has returned to practice this week and with two preseason contests remaining, there is still plenty of time to push Dahl for the starting job. So far this week, he’s worked in with the first unit but also the second team as Mikell and Dahl have each had days to dial it back and get some rest.
During his time not spent practicing, Stewart had made it a point to try to stay as sharp mentally as possible. With the aforementioned new defense in place, the last thing he needed was to fall behind in that aspect then have to play catch up physically and mentally.
As part of that process, Stewart said he has tried to figure out not only what he’s doing but also what everyone around him is supposed to do as well. After all, with a new coaching staff in place, he has to win the trust of a lot of new people.
“(It’s a) new coaching staff and you always want to be out there on the field from a personal standpoint,” Stewart said. “Especially just being out, mentally I have been there. It hasn’t slowed me down any so I feel like I am up to par with that.”
McGinnis, who spends most of his practice time overseeing the defense and ensuring the players are doing what they’re supposed to be doing believes the competition is just warming up and that there are some advantages to taking a longer look at both players in similar circumstances.
Under the previous coaching regime, the two safety spots were deemed interchangeable with no real clear delineation between strong and free safety. This system requires the safeties to know and understand both positions but it has more clearly defined roles between the two spots.
The free safety acts as more of a centerfielder who can move around and make plays on the ball while the strong safety spends more time in the box serving a variety of roles.
“I think as far as our skill sets there’s not too much separating us from free and strong but as far as the design of the defense, there’s quite a bit of difference,” Dahl said. “The free safety is pretty much in the post a lot of the time, the strong safety is down in coverage and blitzing closer to the line of scrimmage so there is quite a bit of difference.”
With only five safeties on the 90-man roster during camp, there have been plenty of repetitions to go around and injuries have caused plenty of shuffling that asks all of the safeties to work at both spots.
The ability to be versatile and play either spot could ultimately be a deciding factor in how the final roster shakes out.
“They have to become comfortable playing with one another,” McGinnis said. “Plus, those two positions need to be interchangeable because you never know during the course of a ball game what might come up. So you need to have confidence that the guys that you put in are able to assimilate the information and be able to transpose it to both of the positions.
“I’ve seen players in this league that have been able to flourish in this league and have great careers because they can play multiple positions. They have got an old adage in this league ‘the more you can do, the longer you stay.’ That’s very apropos.”
In some sense, Dahl would seem to fit better as the swingman because he’s spent plenty of time playing both positions during his time in the league. He’s started 25 games and played a total of 38 games at strong and free safety as he enters his fifth year in the league.
In terms of tenure with the Rams, Dahl has been around the longest of all the safeties and with youngsters like Stewart and promising rookies Rodney McLeod and Matt Daniels around, he’s taken on a bit of a leadership role.
“The more years you have in here, the more experiences you have,” Dahl said. “Just being able to help these rookies out in transitioning and the younger guys, not just the rookies and how to be a pro and what things you’ve picked up can help out some other people around you when you were coming up.”
It’s almost certain both Dahl and Stewart will be on the final roster but there is still plenty of sorting to do in terms of who will be announced with the starters come Sept. 9.
Last season, it was Dahl who appeared to win the job out of camp, starting the opener and then four of the first five games. But Stewart took over from there and never looked back as he started 10 of the final 11 games, only missing one because of a concussion issue.
Dahl finished the season with 54 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble after appearing in all 16 games with five starts.
Stewart played in 15 games with 13 starts (the Rams used sub packages to open some games) and finished third on the team in tackles with 91, adding three sacks, an interception returned for a touchdown, 10 passes defended and two forced fumbles.
With two games and more than two full weeks of practice left to determine a winner, there is still plenty of time for Stewart or Dahl to emerge and stake a final claim to the spot.
For now, though, neither is focused on doing much more than working to become a better player and letting the rest sort itself out later.
“My main concern was just getting healthy,” Stewart said. “I can’t control that (competition). At the end of the day, the coach is still going to make that decision. I have just got to do what I’ve been doing.”