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3 Minnesota Vikings Coordinator Willie Shaw has put some teeth in one of the league's worst defenses

Sept. 02, 2002
Sept. 02, 2002

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Sept. 2, 2002

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3 Minnesota Vikings Coordinator Willie Shaw has put some teeth in one of the league's worst defenses

He remains recognizable by his confident, purposeful stride.
There are a few more flecks of gray in his neatly trimmed hair,
but he is much the same as he was in 1999, the last time he ran
an NFL defense. His raspy voice still has a commanding tone, and
when you ask about his philosophy the answer doesn't change:
Attack, attack, attack.

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 2002 issue

Willie Shaw knows no other way to coach, and after being promoted
to defensive coordinator last February, he was eager to revamp
the Vikings' abysmal defense. Shaw, who was Minnesota's secondary
coach, takes over a unit that ranked among the league's worst the
last three years and was a major factor (354.1 yards allowed per
game, 27th in the NFL) in the team's plummet to 5-11 last season.
The Vikings could stop neither the run (yielding 4.8 yards per
carry) nor the pass (opposing quarterbacks completed 60.9% of
their attempts), and they surrendered 24.4 points a game, more
than all but five teams in the league.

The 58-year-old Shaw has faced tougher tasks. In 1998 he took
charge of a Raiders defense that had ranked 30th in the NFL and
transformed it into the league's fifth-best unit a year later.
Though Jon Gruden, Oakland's coach at the time, shocked his
players by firing Shaw after the '99 season because of a clash of
personalities, Shaw left the Bay Area a popular leader who was
sure to rise to a coordinator's post again.

During this past off-season Shaw and new Minnesota coach Mike
Tice focused on free agents as the way to improve the defense.
The first player they landed was end Kenny Mixon, a dominant run
stopper used primarily on first and second down by the Dolphins,
but who the Vikings hope will be an every-down contributor. Then
came end Lorenzo Bromell, a tenacious pass rusher and Mixon's
former teammate in Miami. Add that pair to the defensive line mix
that also includes tackle Chris Hovan, the best returning
starter, and end Lance Johnstone, who is coming off a
disappointing season but had 21 sacks over two seasons under Shaw
in Oakland, and Minnesota should be better at stuffing the run
and rattling quarterbacks.

"We have size and speed, but right now all we've got is an
aggregate of good players trying to find a way to play
together," says Shaw, whose retooled defense will have as many
as eight new starters. "But good players don't win games, good
teams do."

There's pressure on the veteran line to come through, because the
rest of the defense lacks experience. Middle linebacker Henri
Crockett, a six-year veteran, will be flanked by Patrick
Chukwurah and Lemanski Hall, who have 16 career starts between
them. Cornerback Corey Chavous, another free-agent signee, from
the Arizona Cardinals, could have two first-year safeties behind
him, rookie free agent Kyries Hebert and third-round draft pick
Willie Offord.

"We're going to get after people," Hovan says. "Last year we
spent a lot of time holding our blocks so the linebackers could
make plays, which obviously didn't work too well. This year we
have the Big Dog Defense. The defensive linemen will be the ones
to make things happen. We'll be asked to penetrate and if we're
not making plays, this defense won't work."

Adds Bromell, "We have a lot of new guys but we can all run.
With this group, everybody will get to the ball, and that's big
because that's when you create turnovers."

The defense isn't the only thing that needs to be resurrected.
The offense was a shambles after the 2001 training camp death of
tackle Korey Stringer. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper didn't
approach his breakout season of 2000, and Randy Moss was more
distraction--particularly after his comments about not always
playing as hard as he can--than superstar. In addition, running
back Michael Bennett, the team's first-round draft pick, started
slowly and was ineffective in a limited role. This fall,
Minnesota is emphasizing getting the ball to Moss and encouraging
Culpepper to improve his preparation.

"You need a good offense to help your defense stay fresh, and we
didn't have that last year," says Pro Bowl center Matt Birk. On
the whole, the team needed an attitude adjustment, and that's
where Shaw comes in. "Willie's whole mind-set is to be
aggressive," Crockett says. "He's an initiator. He wants [the
other team] to adjust to what we're doing, and that's what we're
going to try to accomplish." --J.C.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS In Shaw's attacking scheme young players like Hall have to make big plays.COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS CHAVOUS

NEW TWIST

After years of running three-wide-receiver, one-back sets, the
Vikings will use a two-tight-end formation more often, helping
quarterback Daunte Culpepper with his reads and opening up the
passing game. This formation forces a defense to show which side
is the strong one; when a safety creeps up to defend the run,
Culpepper will know what to do.

ENEMY LINES an opposing team's scout sizes up the Vikings

"They've helped themselves a lot. Even with the loss of Cris
Carter [retired], their receivers will be much better overall.
D'Wayne Bates gives them size and good hands, Derrick Alexander
is lazy but has great speeds, and Cedric James is a sleeper....
I know it's going to be harder to get Randy Moss the ball, but I
think Mike Tice is going to make an effort to do it.... Michael
Bennett should improve in his second pro season. I don't know if
he struggled with the playbook, but he was hesitant running the
ball last fall.... They have depth and experience at tight end.
Jim Kleinsasser and Hunter Goodwin are decent blockers, and
Byron Chamberlain can get up the field and make plays.... The
offensive line should be better [when Bryant McKinnie ends his
holdout]. He's better than any tackle they had last year....
They didn't have much talent on defense, so anybody they added
had to be an improvement. Kenny Mixon, a good run defender, and
Henri Crockett should make a big difference. Lorenzo Bromell is
a better pass rusher than Lance Johnstone.... They have some
young guys who can run in that defense, but they still need two
cornerbacks. Corey Chavous is their wild card. He's easily their
best cornerback, but he's also good enough to play safety. He
understands the nuances of the game well enough to decrease the
impact of losing safety Robert Griffith [to free agency], but
they can't afford to put him there."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 8 at Chicago*
15 BUFFALO
22 CAROLINA
29 at Seattle

Oct. 6 Open date
13 DETROIT
20 at N.Y. Jets
27 CHICAGO

Nov. 3 at Tampa Bay
10 N.Y. GIANTS
17 GREEN BAY
24 at New England

Dec. 1 ATLANTA
8 at Green Bay
15 at New Orleans
21 MIAMI (Sat.)
29 at Detroit

*Champaign, Ill.

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: T13
Opponents' 2001 winning percentage: .504
Games against playoff teams: 8

PROJECTED LINEUP with 2001 statistics

COACH: Mike Tice; first full season with Minnesota (0-1 in NFL)
2001 RECORD: 5-11 (fourth in NFC Central)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 25/7/12; defense 30/18/27

OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*

QB Daunte Culpepper 25
366 att. 235 comp. 64.2% 2,612 yds. 14 TDs 13 int. 83.3 rtg.

RB Michael Bennett 89
172 att. 682 yds. 4.0 avg. 29 rec. 226 yds. 7.8 avg. 3 TDs

RB Moe Williams [N] 290
65 att. 291 yds. 4.5 avg. 23 rec. 210 yds. 9.1 avg. 0 TDs

FB Harold Morrow 327
12 att. 67 yds. 5.6 avg. 13 rec. 142 yds. 10.9 avg. 0 TDs

RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

[PVR*]

WR Randy Moss 14 82 rec. 1,233 yds. 10 TDs
WR D'Wayne Bates [N] 163 9 rec. 160 yds. 1 TD
WR Derrick Alexander [N] 150 27 rec. 470 yds. 3 TDs
TE Byron Chamberlain 165 57 rec. 666 yds. 3 TDs
K Doug Brien [N] 253 2/2 XPs 5/6 FGs 17 pts.
PR Nick Davis (R) [N] 364 20 ret. 12.3 avg. 0 TDs
KR Nick Davis (R) [N] 364 27 ret. 22.0 avg. 0 TDs

LT Lewis Kelly 6'4" 306 lbs. 4 games 0 starts
LG Corbin Lacina 6'4" 314 lbs. 11 games 10 starts
C Matt Birk 6'4" 308 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG David Dixon 6'5" 359 lbs. 15 games 14 starts
RT Chris Liwienski 6'5" 321 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

DEFENSE

LE Kenny Mixon [N] 25 tackles 2 sacks
LT Fred Robbins 18 tackles 2 sacks
RT Chris Hovan 29 tackles 6 sacks
RE Lance Johnstone 29 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
OLB Patrick Chukwurah 8 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
MLB Henri Crockett [N] 46 tackles 1 int.
OLB Raonall Smith (R) [N] 79 tackles 1/2 sack
CB Corey Chavous [N] 61 tackles 1 int.
SS Willie Offord (R) [N] 84 tackles 1 int.
FS Ronnie Bradford [N] 51 tackles 0 int.
CB Eric Kelly 62 tackles 2 int.
P Kyle Richardson [N] 85 punts 38.9 avg.

[N] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 98)

"Chavous is their wild card. He's easily their best corner, but
he's also good enough to play safety."