Does Russell Feel Pressure For Follow-Up Season?

Is there pressure on Brian Russell to follow up on his nine interceptions from last year? See what the defensive back says about that and his work toward improving as an all-around safety.

The Vikings had just finished a 2-1/2 hour practice. It started with more than an hour of drills and seven-on-seven work, then concluded with about an hour of full-team competition.

Safety Brian Russell and cornerback Ken Irvin joined a brief meeting with the defensive backs, then went over to an open practice field and proceeded to run sprints with a parachute tied around their waists. They do it, Russell said, so when they're working on drills or with the team they can concentrate on football, not conditioning.

When Russell and former Viking Robert Griffith are both in San Diego, they work out together. "Griff's a workaholic. I stay with him and we push each other real hard. It just gets you ready for what they have when you come up here," Russell said.

What met Russell when he came to the Twin Cities for minicamp and developmental camps this spring was questioning about his conditioning because he was attending school in California and not working out with the team. Considering Russell's work ethic and professional attitude, the questions seemed off-base.

He has a half of semester left to get his degree in kinesiology, with a concentration in nutrition, fitness and health. By staying on the West Coast after the Vikings' season ended, he was able to complete one semester.

"I love this game, but there are no guarantees," he said. "You hurt yourself and you've got to do something else in life."

After tying San Francisco's Tony Parrish for the NFL lead in interceptions, it appears an injury is the only thing would end Russell's career any time soon. But it wasn't always that way for the undrafted free agent out of San Diego State.

He started on the Vikings' practice squad in 2001, then played in every game in 2002 with two starts.

Last year, he started every game after beating out third-round draft choice Willie Offord.

"Starting 16 games, and going through the adversity and up and downs of an NFL season, it's just so valuable. It carries over into this year. I can feel it and I see things better, but I need to improve on everything," Russell said.

Success in statistics started early for Russell last season. He tied a franchise record with an interception in six consecutive games to open the season, and ended the season one pick shy of Hall of Famer Paul Krause's team record 10 interceptions in 1975.

But after early success, some observers thought Russell was out of position too often as the season progressed.

"Did my approach change? Not at all," he said. "I'll take as many interceptions as I can get, but I don't consider myself purely an interception-type safety. I've always considered myself a hitter … very much like Griff. He's somebody I really studied while I was here, but that's just my game. At the same time, that's just my mental makeup, the way I try to play. As far as running down the ball, as a safety when you get a chance to get your hands on one, you've got to go get it.

"If fans and people out there think I'm an interception machine, I don't know how realistic that is. You make the plays you're afforded the opportunity to make, sometimes those are tackles, sometimes those are fumble recoveries and sometimes those are interceptions. As a free safety you're moving a lot and reading the quarterback, and that gives you the opportunity to chase down balls. Whereas the strong safety, which I played the first couple years here, you're really in the box a lot more doing different things. I'm just trying to be the best at the position they've asked me to play, and that's free safety."

His mental makeup as a hitter might be more in line with that of a strong safety, but his background as a former college quarterback is a benefit in trying to read where the ball might be thrown.

So it is somewhat ironic that the man who loves to lay out a good hit tied for the league lead in interceptions.

"I might have really found a spot at free safety. I like reading the quarterback and I was a quarterback (in college), and at this point that comes into play. But when they ask me to get down in the box, I really enjoy that," he said. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm working to be a complete safety. I want to have the ball skills to make interceptions, but that's not all I'm capable of doing."

A year of starting 16 games is sure to help refine Russell's skills, but defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell says Russell can still improve as a defensive player.

"I think Brian Russell is picking things up and has really worked hard, the way he's talking and picking up the defense, " Cottrell said. "Brian is such a high-energy guy that in his pursuit sometimes, we're working to make sure he takes the proper pursuit angles. But I'd rather have a guy like that than try to speed a guy up. You can always slow somebody down. I say to him, ‘You can't make every play.' But that's a good thing, not a bad thing."

In the final 10 games of 2003, Russell had three interceptions, but he says he only felt pressure to continue his intercepting ways from the standpoint of adding to the team concept on defense.

"If there was any pressure, it was in our own secondary to get interceptions and help the team," he said. "You got a guy like Corey Chavous, who led the league the majority of the year. At the end of the year, I got a couple and ended up leading the league, but he got eight. We compete with each other more so than other people or listening to what other people say about who is first, second or third in the NFL."

Despite his accomplishments in his first year as a full-time starter, Russell hardly shows any signs of getting lazy. The day after the parachute drills, he was busy running up and down a steep hill at the Vikings' Winter Park facility right after another sunny practice.

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