Coaches Q&A: Special Teams' Rusty Tillman

Special teams coordinator Rusty Tillman talks about some of the things that have helped make the special teams better this year.

Rusty Tillman enters his third year on the Vikings coaching staff, but is the senior member of the group with 31 years of NFL experience as a coach and player. Tillman is in his 23nd season in the league after spending eight as a player with the Washington Redskins.

Considered one of the NFL's elite special teams players during his career, Tillman served as defensive coordinator for Seattle from 1992-94, Tampa Bay in 1994 and Indianapolis in 1998. He became a head coach when he took over the XFL's New York/New Jersey Hitmen for their spring 2001 season.

After a two-year absence, Tillman returned to the NFL in 2003 with the Vikings. In his first season with the Vikings, Tillman was charged with molding a kicking game around a rookie punter (Eddie Johnson) and a place kicker (Aaron Elling) who had not kicked in a regular-season NFL game.

Tillman played college football at Northern Arizona from 1967-69, then played in the NFL for the Washington Redskins from 1970-77. His coaching career started at Seattle, where he coached special teams (1979-82), special teams/tight ends (1983-87) special teams/linebackers (1988-91), and defensive coordinator/ linebackers (1992-94). He was Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator in 1995, was Oakland's special teams coach from 1996-97, and the Colts' defensive coordinator in 1998. After spending a year in the XFL in 2000, he returned to the NFL in 2003.

Tillman, who was born Feb. 27, 1946 in Beloit, Wis., and his wife, Lori, have three sons — Joshua, Jason and Jacob — and a daughter, Rachael. Tillman also has another daughter, Emily, and a granddaughter, Sofia.

Q: Be honest. In the first meeting against Green Bay, when Paul Edinger lined up for the 56-yard field goal, how confident were you that it would be good?

A: We weren't sure, but I wasn't worried about the distance because he hit the ball very well in the pregame warm-ups. He had hit a 58-yarder in pregame warm-ups that day. Some days they just kick the ball better in pregame warm-ups. In fact, I think he told the offense the 40-yard line, which would've been a 58-yarder. I was sure he had the distance, I just wasn't sure if he'd be accurate.

Q: Brad Johnson has made a couple of nice plays on catching the snap for field goals. Who would you rather have as your holder, a quarterback or a punter?

A: I think a quarterback. It gives you more options for fakes and stuff like that.

Q: Did the changes in training camp and minicamp routines for special teams make a tangible difference?

A: Yes, I think they do.

Q: Who are the most feared punt returners and kick returners in the NFL?

A: We have a couple of them. Dante Hall is still a feared returner. Every week there's somebody back there that's scary. Randal-El is a dangerous guy.

Q: Mike said that in the offseason the coaches decided that each starter should contribute on one facet of special teams. Is that one of the reasons the special teams – as a whole – have been a bright spot this year?

A: I don't know. I know that we have some starters that play on special teams who do an excellent job. Antoine Winfield does a fine job, but he was on special teams last year. Jimmy Kleinsasser's been excellent on punt returns. When you look at it now, we've got as many starters on special teams at this point as there was earlier. Kickoff return… Keith Newman, Corey Chavous, E.J. Henderson. Punt team… Brian Williams. I think that was our philosophy going in, but I think that's changed a little bit with injuries.

Q: Richard Owens told us a couple of weeks ago that he loves being a wedge buster. What does it take to be a kamikaze like that in the NFL?

A: You have to be fearless and tough. You have to throw your body into a wedge. I always thought that was a lot easier than making an open-field tackle.

Q: Which is more difficult: Blocking a punt, or blocking a field goal?

A: They're both difficult, but probably blocking a field goal is tougher to get in there. It's tougher to find a weakness in the coverage.

Q: Some players on special teams say you have to have a crazy attitude, almost a pain-craving approach to playing on special teams. Would you agree?

A: I don't know if crazy's the right word. Intense, hell-bent for rushing. You have to want to do it. That's the kind of attitude you have to have to play special teams.

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