Corey Chavous is hungry. He's hungry for himself, his teammates in the defensive backfield, and he wants a championship.
But in order to do that, the defense -- especially the pass defense -- has to improve. Chavous is taking that upon his shoulders. Ask him about the new additions to the backfield and Chavous responds in part by saying that Ken Irvin and Denard Walker need to be able to depend on Chavous. Ask him about Willie Offord and Chavous responds in part by saying how much he would like to help the second-year player.
Chavous sounds like a leader through and through, and that could be just what the Vikings need in their defensive backfield entering training camp with what might be the best talent since the Corey Fuller/DeWayne Washington days but with more NFL experience.
Personnel has changed and so has the coordinating. George O'Leary has taken over as the defensive coordinator, and the Vikings added Kevin Ross as an assistant secondary coach.
"I think Coach O'Leary's system fits some of our strengths as defensive backs," Chavous said. "We're just trying to get some chemistry back there, because ultimately that's the key. Individual play, you can play real well and it doesn't really matter if the group is not playing well."
Some within the organization say O'Leary is scaling back on the complexity of the defense from the philosophies of former defensive coordinator Willie Shaw. Chavous simply appreciates O'Leary's track record.
"There will be several difference," the cornerback-turned-safety said. "O'Leary is a very innovative coach. He's been around the game. He's been around football for a long time. Wherever he's been, he's been at the top as far as productivity as a coach. I don't think he accepts mediocrity, and often times that's the key to being an excellent organizer of troops."
The transition from Shaw to O'Leary will be nothing for Chavous compare the to move he made in midseason last year. Chavous made a difficult and abrupt transition from cornerback to safety in the 10th game of the 2002 season after playing on the outside for five years in the NFL and during his college career. Yet when Chavous, a five-year veteran of the league, moved to safety the defensive backfield saw instantaneous improvement. It seemingly overnight erased the confusion that had surrounded the pass defense during the first half of the season.
"We dropped about 30 yards off our average when I moved inside and it was because we had all been able to play together and be out there for awhile and get chemistry together," Chavous said.
The defensive backfield continues to have Brian Williams and Eric Kelly at cornerback, but now they are backups. Irvin and Walker, both acquired in unrestricted free agency this offseason, are expected to start on the corner, with Chavous and probably Willie Offord at safety. Despite being younger than Irvin and Walker, who are entering their ninth and seventh years in the NFL respectively, Chavous takes responsibility for their play as well.
"These two guys (Irvin and Walker) are good players and they've played in some good secondaries. I think when you talk about how good they've been, you've got to point to the fact that they've both played in top-five secondaries, and their success came when they played in secondaries that were in the top five. In order to see how good they can be, we have to become a good secondary," Chavous said. "It's a challenge. Very rarely do you hear about Troy Vincent and you don't hear about Bobby Taylor. Very rarely do you hear about Bobby Taylor and you don't hear about Brian Dawkins. That's the way the league works, whether it be Sam Madison or Patrick Surtain without mentioning Brock Marion. That's the bottom line, so I need to pick up my level of play at safety and be a good football player so they can have confidence in me. And that's how you get good cornerback play.
"So for the fans to question the cornerback play, you need to question the safety play as well, because if the cornerbacks aren't playing well that means that the safeties aren't playing well. I don't think there should be any added pressure to Denard or Ken if we don't get it done in the back end at safety. I put the onus on my shoulders. These are guys that can stand up on their own. They're great man-to-man cover corners. They've got great ability to just lock guys down. Now they need to get the confidence in us as safeties to do those things."
When Chavous was starting at cornerback for the first nine games last year, Ronnie Bradford and a rotation of Offord, Brian Russell and Tyrone Carter were the safeties. Now Chavous is counting on himself to get better as a safety so he and Offord can provide better insurance for the current cornerbacks and gain their confidence.
"The thing that I have is versatility, in my opinion. I played cornerback for 44 games in college and most of my five years in the NFL, but I've also played six different positions in the NFL as well. From that aspect of having started all four positions in the back end, I think that gives me a feel for the game," Chavous said. "As long as I can be good at safety and continue to get better -- I have a long ways to go, a lot of improvement to do -- I think I can help these guys, in terms of just being somebody they can count on and depend on."
Walker and Irvin will also have to depend on Offord, who has the inside track on securing the free safety position next to Chavous. But nothing is for sure there. Offord struggled early in 2002, and after six starts in the first nine games he was eventually benched because the coaches feared they were overwhelming him in his rookie season.
After a half a season on the sidelines observing and a full offseason learning in practices and film sessions, Chavous sees progress in Offord's maturation as an NFL player.
"I think he has really improved," Chavous said. "I think he's got a better grasp of the defense. He understands the game better. I think anytime you go into your second year, the game begins to slow down. I think the one thing about Willie is that he's got quite a bit of physical ability -- that's been acclaimed quite a bit -- but he's a smart kid. He's a guy that knows what he needs to do. I think he knows that he needs to improve. The one thing I like about him is that he wants to improve, he wants to learn more about the game. He asks questions. We've got guys that have been in the league six years, nine, 10 years -- you should ask questions. That's how you become a better football player.
"I think we're learning together. Anything he needs, he knows he can count on me, whether it be a call on the field, whether it be a call to my house going over plays at night. We do all those things. I'm always trying to be available for him more than just over at the facility (Winter Park). To win a championship, you have to take it beyond just that, particularly at the safety position. For us, we've got a long way to go to get the chemistry we'd like, but I've seen some dramatic improvement in me and his chemistry."
"I think overall the thing Willie can improve on is on the field just seeing things faster. That's just a part of getting reps. When he sees something and reacts to it, I think he does as well as anybody. It's just a matter of being consistent, and that's something I need to improve on. I think if I provide a better example and improve, it will help him see things better."
From start to finish, Chavous is putting the burden of proof on himself, the only returning starter in the defensive backfield. He is hungry to prove the Vikings have the right personnel right now.
Chavous' Burden Of Proof
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