A teacher at heart and a coach by choice, Willie Shaw has the best of both worlds as defensive coordinator with the Oakland Raiders.
"You have English classes and Honors English," Shaw was saying this week. "That's what I do: Honors English. I take a highly skilled athlete and help him get better."
More to the point, Shaw took the NFL's shoddiest defense and remade it into one of the league's most aggressive, domineering units this season.
The Raiders' defense that faces the Ravens tomorrow bears no resemblance to the lame bunch that ranked last in total defense, 28th in scoring defense and carved a reputation as quitters a year ago.
These Raiders lead the league with 22 take-aways, rank second in total defense and are tied for second in yards allowed per rush (3.2). For a team that went 4-12 last season, it represents a remarkable one-year turnaround.
Shaw's starting lineup shows his resourcefulness. There are six returning starters from a year ago, four who played for Shaw with other teams, and one rookie -- cornerback Charles Woodson, the Heisman Trophy winner and fourth pick in the draft.
As soon as Shaw, 54, joined new head coach Jon Gruden in Oakland, he began reshaping defensive attitudes and philosophies.
"The teams that do the best job are teams that come out of training camp and have turned that aggregate of players into a team concept," said Shaw, who coached defensive backs in New Orleans last season.
"If they're still an aggregate out of camp, I don't care how good they are or how much money you spent on them, when adversity comes, they will fly apart. Team concept is what wins in this league."
Linked with that change in attitude was a shift in scheme. Shaw wanted an aggressive, pursuit defense that dictated action. He accomplished it with a revived pass rush, ball-hawking cornerbacks and a zone blitz package that has produced 24 sacks so far.
"Everybody used to say offense is action and defense reaction," Shaw said. "That's the way we played the last six, seven years. You can play the best possible defense that way, a bend-but-don't-break defense and not make mistakes, [but] the chains keep moving downfield.
"You've got to turn the tables. You've got to have more action than reaction."
Toward that end, Shaw likes to blitz often, even on running
downs. The play of his cornerbacks allows him that luxury. Teamed with Woodson is six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Allen, acquired from New Orleans in an off-season trade. Allen has three interceptions and Woodson two.
Shaw also moved Darrell Russell from defensive end to tackle, and the No. 1 pick from 1997 has responded with six sacks, nearly doubling his rookie total in half a season. End Lance Johnstone leads the team with seven sacks.
Shaw's background is as diverse as any coach in the NFL. He was a sergeant in the Air Force at 19 during the Vietnam War, had a job with an electronics firm working on jets and then decided to go back to college to become a teacher.
Instead, he became a football coach.
NOTES: The 6-2 Raiders have yet to announce who will be their starting quarterback tomorrow, but they are inching closer to putting Jeff George back on the field, the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News reported. "I think there's a good chance he'll play," Gruden said yesterday, adding he has no plans to have George and Donald Hollas divide playing time. George, who practiced this week for the first time in more than a month, has been sidelined since suffering two groin tears Oct. 4. Gruden faces a Nov. 30 pretrial hearing in Pleasanton, Calif., on a charge of driving under the influence Oct. 11. He pleaded innocent Thursday.
Pub Date: 11/07/98