Willie Shaw moved back into a familiar role as defensive coordinator this year, this time with the Vikings. Shaw was the defensive backs coach and assistant head coach last season. He was a Vikings assistant coach from 1992-93 before joining the coaching staffs of the San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. He also coached with the Detroit Lions and numerous NCAA Division I colleges before his first stint with the Vikings.
For 14 of his 15 seasons coaching in the NFL (33 years of coaching total), Shaw has either been a defensive backs coach or a defensive coordinator. He also brings experience in resurrecting poor defenses. When he joined the Raiders as their defensive coordinator in 1998, he inherited a defense that ranked 30th in total defense, 30th in rushing defense and 30th in passing defense in 1997. In his first season in Oakland, the Raiders finished with the fifth-best defense in the league.
Q: With Corey Chavous moving to strong safety and Brian Williams taking over at left cornerback, the defense seems to be getting some continuity. How important is that?
A: We went through a period of adjustment because we had so many new guys and so many young guys. We struggled a little bit at times; we played well at times. But like young people we would fall down and shoot ourselves in the foot and we'd bounce back. … We just continue to work at trying to get the right combination, and finally it came down to having to make a move that you generally (don't like to make). You generally don't like to move a guy from one position to another position during the course of the season.
But we had no other choice. We tried every combination we could. We had to shore up that position — strong safety is a crucial position in any defense. I think … No. 1, moving Corey Chavous to strong safety and at the same time getting a draft choice who has really come along for us, Brian Williams, into the lineup on a full-time basis instead of nickel, I think those two things, combined with an improved pass rush and an improved strongside linebacker play — because we have a rookie there (Nick Rogers) who is into his fourth or fifth game starting — those things really combined together to give us some improved play.
Now what we hope will happen, what you hope would happen at the start of the season as you play and play, you get better because you have the same people in the lineup and you improve just for the fact that everybody is on the same page. We did not have that during the course of the year because we had a lot of adjustments. I think we went eight weeks without the same lineup going on the field.
Q: When did you start to consider shifting Chavous to strong safety, and was that a last-resort type of move?
A: It was kind of a last resort. Like I said, you don't like to change players, especially ones who have started the whole season at one position and then move him to another position in the middle of the season. That's very difficult to do and players don't like it. Coaches really don't like it either. But it was a last resort because that was the last piece of the puzzle, the strong safety position. We were jockeying back and forth between two rookies (Willie Offord and Brian Russell). They just never really got a grasp on the position. They played well in spurts, both of them. But neither one of them was making progress as a complete NFL strong safety. So at this time we decided to move Corey, who is very adept as a player because he can play a dual role. That has really helped us. It has made us better in the sense that now we have a strong safety with corner ability who can go up and play a receiver in the slot and those kind of things. It gives us a lot more versatility also.
Q: Is this where you see Chavous for the long term?
A: Right now we are trying to get our head above water during the season. For me to sit here and say we are evaluating here and there, my evaluation of anything to do with this defense for the future will happen at the end of the year. It just takes so much effort during the course of the week to get ready to play an NFL team on Sunday, you can't afford to say, ‘Well, this guy is here.' You don't look at it like that. You move the guy, try to get him on the same page, try to get your game plan down, try to keep people moving in the right direction and whatever happens at the end of the season happens. I might not be here; he might not be here. So who cares about next season? Right now, it's 2002 and that's our focus. Those kind of things will be evaluated at the end of the year like they should be. We will sit down and make a comfortable decision away from the game for what we are going to do with Corey or what is going to happen to Corey.
Q: How important was it to get Brian Williams this chance?
A: It gave Brian, who is an up and coming draft choice with a lot of ability, a chance to get on the field full-time instead of just on nickel downs. He did well (against Green Bay) and made some plays and gave us a big boost there. So two things that happened is we shored up the strong safety position, we hope, over the (remaining) games, and we have got another good football player on the field as a starter who has made good progress as a rookie. Those two things, stabilizing the defense and getting Brian on the field, are the two biggest things we did. We have been trying all kinds of combinations, and this seems to be the one that works the best for us. From here on, maybe we will get some continuity now that hopefully we have got the same 11 guys on the field.
Q: How far as a group have the young players progressed, and how satisfying as a coach is it for you to see their progress?
A: You don't have time to sit and reflect on it because it's the next game, the next game, the next game. The process of getting a game plan together from Monday morning to Wednesday morning when you present it to them, it takes 16, 18 hours a day. There is no time to reflect. You really don't have much time to think about the last game, win or lose. The focus is, as it should be, on the next game because the process is so precise, so time-consuming and so stressful that you don't have time to reflect on a whole lot of other things — not even a big win (like Green Bay). You get about six or eight hours to think about it. You are so exhausted on Sunday you go to sleep anyway. You get up Monday morning and the biggest thing you have to do is get it out of your mind because New England is another challenge. And usually if you are still reflecting on that last win on Wednesday and Thursday, you are probably setting yourself up to lose the next game because the next opponent requires all the attention and focus you can muster for yourself and your players.
Q: With what areas of the defense have you been the most pleased?
A: You just try to make progress. The defensive line has been active. We have had good play out of all groups at certain times. Even the young guys on the back end have played good in spurts. What you would like to do is get some continuity and play more consistent. The progress has been good as individuals. The (strongside) linebacker's progress (Rogers), being a rookie and going to a new position — this time last year he was a defensive lineman and then he went to (middle linebacker) for all of camp and now he's playing Sam and starting. His improvement every week has been good. But overall you just try to get all the pieces together and get ready for the next game. Your next game is the most important thing. How are you going to improve for this next game?
Q: Are there any certain aspects you want to see improve each game?
A: That's evaluation. That's looking at yourself. If you focus on the next opponent, you don't really have a lot of time to focus on yourself. From 5 a.m. when you get up on Monday morning like I do, if you aren't focused on New England, the defending Super Bowl champs, you lose your way. You can't look at yourself. You have to keep looking forward. Now, at the end of the season when you do evaluations on how you did and where you are at, then you get a lot more focused. But right now you just sort of do what you have to do with the players you've got, see who can fit and who is not, and from that point on you go and put the game plan in and try to get it taught. That's Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 5 in the morning until 11:30 or 12 at night on those days.
Q: As a defensive coordinator, does it get more difficult each season to try and stop all the different offensive schemes?
A: I think you adjust. If you are a coordinator who has been in this league for a while, I've coached against most of the coordinators in this league or the other head coach and have an idea. Just the whole process of gathering information, presenting it in good form, presenting it in practice the way you want, having a game plan, the adjustments you have to make this week as opposed to last week. Saying, ‘Hey, we did this last week, but this week for this type of style offense, you need to do this.' That kind of focus is what you do. That is what is so time-consuming. It's getting it in some kind of form so (the players can) read it and so they can assimilate what you need to do in two days and get rid of what they did last week because you are playing a different offense, different personnel. It's a process that is tough in itself because it is time-consuming. It's not hard, it's just involved.
Q&A: With DC Willie Shaw
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