Turnovers and trade-offs in the Rams defensive backfield

With the St. Louis Rams still in limbo with OJ Atogwe, I thought it would be a good chance to take a closer look at the players they'll turn to should Atogwe land somewhere else. 

First things first, Atogwe's run defense has been a little suspect, but I'll refer you to this post at RamsHerd that takes an in-depth look at that part of Atogwe's game. 

More specifically, I want to concentrate on the players who'll fill Atogwe's ball-hungry shoes, and how the Rams might fare on turnovers without Atogwe. 

Ram_rod took a closer look at Atogwe's statistical profile last week. 

Craig Dahl is working with the first team at FS at the moment. Starting in 8 and playing in 12 games last season, filling in for both Atogwe and SS James Butler, Dahl soldified his place on the roster as a capable backup. During this offseason he'll be making his case for a starting job. On the turnover front, Dahl has none in his limited resume. He does a solid job in run defense, but measuring his impact in coverage is difficult. According to Advanced NFL Stats, Dahl had a tackle factor of 0.89, a good number considering he started just 8 games. He had just 3 passes defended, but did prove to be a useful player on safety blitzes, where he collected 2 sacks and 4 QB hits. 

Per Football Outsiders stats, Dahl allowed an average of 11.4 yards per passing play. Atogwe allowed 13.1 yards per passing play. That's not much to go on as far as what Dahl's hands can do, but if he can provide solid coverage and keep plays from getting deep it should still benefit the defense...and maybe another player can seek out the INTs. 

Kevin Payne does have some history with the turnover. In 2008, he snagged four INTs for the Bears.

Payne had a tackle factor of 0.89 in 13 games with the Bears last season. The season before, it was a 1.15. By all accounts Payne didn't have his strongest year last year, but some his stats reveal a player who was better than you might have been led to believe. Per FO, Payne allowed an average of 9.1 yards on passing plays in 2009, when he was working mostly at FS. When the Rams acquired Payne, pundits talked about him being a better SS than a FS. That may have had more to do with his lack of INTs compared to his '08 season than it did with overall play. Targeted 25 times, opponents completed 9 of those passes. And, he didn't get burned for big plays, which should be more exciting to Rams fans than INTs. Here's Kevin on his strengths in the free safety's role:

At free safety, I feel confident in my ability to be able to scope out eeeeevery little thing that's happening on the field - being able to do this helps me get a good feel for what the quarterback and everyone else is about to do. By having such a strong sense of awareness about my surroundings, I'm really able to step up my game.

I didn't watch a lot of Bears games last year, except for one, but the numbers seem to agree with Kevin. 

Between 2007 and 2008, Atogwe snagged 13 INTs and forced 6 fumbles. Impressive totals by any measure. However, the Rams defensive system changed since those two seasons. When Jim Haslett was the defensive coordinator, he put a big emphasis on creating turnovers. Admittedly, some of that had to do with the Rams shaky defenses, but it was a system that allowed Atogwe to focus on finding the ball above locking down the field. That might be part of the explanation for his decreased turnover numbers last season, his first in a defense that expects both the FS and the SS to be interchangeable, exposing the parts of Atogwe's game that weren't as fully developed as his ball hawking acumen. No doubt that's a factor in the contract talks. 

Now, about that Rams team without Atogwe...I still wonder about the defensive backs creating turnovers, but that's not their primary role in this defense. If Kevin Payne and Craig Dahl can keep opposing quarterbacks and receivers from having their way with the defense in the backfield, it could be a better trade-off. 

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