Brian Baker, who joined the Vikings as their defensive line coach prior to the 2001 season after spending four years with the Detroit Lions defensive line, is in his second season coaching linebackers for the Vikings. Baker also coached the defensive line with the San Diego Chargers in 1996.
Baker's coaching roots run deep, with seven years of NFL coaching experience and 12 years coaching at the college level, despite being only 41 years old. He started at the University of Maryland coaching linebackers in 1984-85, then coached fullbacks at Army in 1986, then served for nine years at Georgia Tech under Bobby Ross. His connection to Ross also brought him to San Diego and Detroit. He is also an active member of the American Football Coaches Association.
Q: How have the linebackers done as a unit?
A: I've been very pleased. We made a couple of changes early with (Henri) Crockett and (Chris) Claiborne and then later on with Max Yates, seeing if he could play two positions, and now with Raonall Smith, seeing if he can play two positions. They all seem to be slowly but surely starting to get a grasp of the concepts of the defense. I think some guys being hurt, hurt the guys that were injured but helped the guys that replaced them. I thought (Mike) Nattiel's progress was particularly good. But again he got so many reps with Raonall Smith being hurt that I think that worked to his advantage. Obviously, it hurt Smitty because we made a change on the depth chart and that was a result of him being hurt and the other guy doing so well.
Q: Where does Smith stand because obviously he has been hurt so much in his brief tenure with the Vikings?
A: I don't know. … Right now, we know what he is as an athlete, but obviously it takes a lot more than being an athlete to play this game — especially at this level. We still need to get a better feel for him as a player. We haven't had that because the last two years he hasn't had much live contact against an opponent. That's still part of the evaluation process.
Q: Did you see immediate results from switching Chris Claiborne to weakside and Henri Crockett to strongside?
A: It took both of them, especially Clay, a little time to get used to it. But I think probably after the Kansas City preseason game, right around that time, is when there was no question that this was the best thing to do and this was the way we will go into the season.
Q: Did you have a feeling going into camp that you might end up making the switch with Claiborne and Crockett?
A: To be honest with you, I wanted to but we didn't do it … and I don't know Mike (Tice's) and George (O'Leary's) opinion on it, but I didn't push it because when we signed Crockett last year we told him we were going to sign him as a middle linebacker, either a (middle) or a (weakside) linebacker and he would be off the ball. When you are dealing with a guy's career, I never feel comfortable going back on something I said we were going to do. I wanted to give the opportunity to him there, but then with the change in coordinators and some things that George prefers from a front standpoint, we ended up playing him a lot on the line of scrimmage anyway. So, I think the transition was easier for him because he knew at either position he was going to be on the line of scrimmage so he didn't see it necessarily as, ‘These guys told me one thing and they are doing something else.' The scheme changed so things changed. It made the change a little easier for him.
Q: So Crockett is pleased?
A: He's fine. I actually think once it is all said and done that he's more comfortable in the role that he has been in most of his career as opposed to what he was doing before. He doesn't ever want to play (middle) linebacker again. He doesn't even want to hear anything about (middle linebacker) anymore. But now he's proficient at both (strongside) and (weakside), and I think it helps from a career standpoint.
Q: With Crockett missing time because of a shoulder injury, was the time he missed not as crucial because you already know what he can do?
A: It wasn't as big a deal because he's a veteran, but obviously Crock, like most players, needs repetition to perfect his craft. The reps he missed there hurt him, but fortunately we were able to replace him with a guy who is a pretty good football player in Nick Rogers. Nick certainly held his own in Crock's absence, so that gave us a little confidence as a defense knowing that we have some quality backups. From that standpoint, the glass is certainly, heck, more than half full. But I don't think any football player that misses time in training camp benefits from it. That's time missed, that's snaps missed, that's technique time missed, it's execution time missed. You can't replace that.
Q: How much progress has Rogers made since his rookie season in 2002?
A: Night and day. Last year, he was learning our defense, learning how to play linebacker, still trying to figure out which stance is best for him and all that kind of stuff. Then at the end of training camp we moved his position (from the middle to the strong side), which meant he had to learn it all over again. By the end of the season he was finally starting to get a little bit of a feel as to why we were telling him the things we were telling him. This year he came into camp knowing why and knowing the things he had to understand. He's still gaining confidence in himself as a linebacker, and I think that's going to come with playing time. But he certainly now, from an understanding standpoint, has a much better feel for the position.
Q: How excited are you by what Claiborne will bring to the defense?
A: Chris is a playmaker. I was excited when we had the opportunity to get him. He hasn't done anything to quell that enthusiasm. I knew he was a playmaker because he made plays for us in Detroit when I was there. I'm always on him about the details — fundamental details, details of his assignments and execution. He's a natural playmaker. Those guys see the ball and they go to it a lot. But I still want him to be a little more attentive to the details of the position.
Q: Has he come a long way since you coached in Detroit from 1997 to 2000?
A: Yes. He's matured. He's a matured linebacker. Where before he might have taken that criticism and said, ‘He doesn't know what he's talking about, he's just on my butt.' That kind of stuff that is typical from young guys, maybe E.J. Henderson is saying that about me now, I don't know. But Chris certainly understands now why those things have been said to him and told to him and why they are so important.
Q: How has Greg Biekert looked in the middle during camp?
A: He has been steady. I think when you get into his years with as many collisions as he has had — I'm not speaking for him to say this is his mood — but I think it's natural for an older guy to get to a point in camp where, ‘OK, I know the defense, I know my fits, I know my coverage assignments.' Now, let me just kind of get through this thing and let's get rolling. That's kind of contrary to his personality, but if I were to guess I think a little bit of that gets in there, which wouldn't surprise me. It does happen. I've coached quality experienced guys before, and that was always the thing those guys battled through. They understand that there is another season and they get what they can get out of training camp and then they are ready to move on. I think Biek is pretty a little bit at that point.
Q: Of the young guys, who has impressed you?
A: Mike Nattiel, just from his progress standpoint. As a coach you are always impressed with progress. He has probably been the most steady. E.J. has probably shown the most explosive flashes. At times he plays really, really well and then there are other times he plays really, really poorly. He's a great example of the thing that coaches hate most about young players and that's inconsistency. That's kind of how his camp has been, kind of in a nutshell. From a standpoint of play-making ability, all those young guys, Nick Rogers, Nattiel, E.J., Raonall Smith … make plays. We have a really solid group of linebackers that I'm really, really excited about.
Q&A: With LBs Coach Brian Baker
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