Dahl had spent the first two years of his NFL career learning head coach Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive system in New York, so the transition seemed painless at the time.
However, it didn’t matter how well Dahl knew the playbook. He quickly learned that the life of a starting safety in the NFL isn’t easy. According to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted 41 times in his first season with the Rams (subscription required). He allowed three touchdown receptions on those 41 targets, and opposing quarterbacks finished the season with a quarterback rating of 111.6 when they threw his way.
Yet, one less-than-impressive season didn’t keep Dahl down. He vowed to improve his coverage skills in 2010 and beyond. Over the course of his final three seasons in St. Louis, he showed an uptick in production. The 2012 season was by far his most productive.
Last year he surrendered only 18 receptions and one touchdown in 16 starts. Moreover, opposing quarterbacks compiled a quarterback rating of 98.5. That’s 13.1 points lower than the number he posted as a first-year starter in 2009.
Aside from his slightly above-average coverage skills, it was Dahl's high football intelligence that helped him succeed more than anything. When the San Francisco 49ers signed the former undrafted free agent out of North Dakota State, general manager Trent Baalke noted Dahl's strengths: “He is an experienced veteran with excellent intangibles, who has working knowledge of the NFC West.” (per 49ers.com.)
Dahl’s working knowledge of the NFC West was on display yesterday between minicamp practices. Here’s what the seven-year pro told Cam Inman of the mercurynews.com in regards to how well the Rams played the 49ers last year: “We had a few tips off film we were able to differentiate between run and pass early. So that kind of gave us an added benefit on defense.”
The tip-offs didn’t solely revolve around the quarterback position. They revolved around the entire offense as a whole, according to Dahl:
Different personnel and different alignment stuff really were the big keys as far as giveaways...It's been addressed and corrected. They knew most of it before I even got here. We just reconfirmed it. It's ongoing self-study and self-scouting that got it cleared up, too.
Dahl’s public statements didn’t sit well with some of his former teammates, especially cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The always outspoken Finnegan took to Twitter to defend himself and the rest of the organization:
We all know Finnegan can be a punk at times, but his tweet was less about being a punk and more about standing up for the St. Louis locker room. Even though Dahl helped the Rams field the 18th-best pass defense in the NFL last year, it takes more than one player.
Surely, Dahl wasn’t the only defensive player that knew about the telltale signs. So, it’s easy to see why Finnegan was outraged after he heard the comments. Finnegan’s Twitter rant didn’t stop with one public tweet—he went on to call his former teammate lame and weak:
Finnegan has every right to say what he said, but I wanted to know how the fans felt about the situation. I took to twitter myself and posed a simple question: Were Finnegan’s comments off base by calling Dahl out like he did?
Unsurprisingly, Rams fans had a few choice words for Dahl:
One has to wonder whether or not Dahl's insider information helped him land a job with the 49ers. It would be wise to think that the insider information did help him get a three-year deal worth $5.25 million.
St. Louis didn’t show any interest in re-signing Dahl, so he used his former team’s secrets to his advantage. It’s hard to blame him. The NFL is a cutthroat business that shows loyalty to no one. This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time a division rival signs a former enemy in free agency.
Dahl’s defensive skill set will be a welcomed addition to the 49ers, but he has an uphill battle on his hands if he wants to start at free safety. San Francisco drafted LSU safety Eric Reid in the first round of this year’s draft. Which means he will be given every opportunity to take over for the departed Dashon Goldson.
At best, Dahl appears to be a reserve safety and top-notch special teams addition, nothing more. Yet, we all know how quickly things can change when the injury bug rears its ugly head.
Look for Finnegan and a few other Rams players to target No. 43 when the two teams meet during the regular season.
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