Friday, August 31, 2007

Vrabel takes it one year at a time

Entering 11th NFL season, ex-Buckeye pondering future

By Christopher L. Gasper
August 26, 2007

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Mike Vrabel was the last player on the practice field, but he had company. After a recent training camp session, Vrabel was joined by his sons, Tyler and Carter, who were drop-kicking footballs through the goal posts. It was a glimpse into the possible post-football life for the Patriots linebacker.

It might not seem like it, but this is Vrabel's 11th season in the NFL and seventh in New England. The consummate Patriot, Vrabel, 32, has been so durable, adaptable and accountable that it's easy to take his accomplishments for granted. Like a car tire, he's just there and you don't fully appreciate him until he's not.

Vrabel's contract runs through 2009 and he is still playing at a high level -- last year he had his second straight 100-plus tackle season -- but it's no longer automatic he'll show up at Patriots training camp every year.

"I think you have to look at what the team wants to do and what the player wants to do and how he feels physically," Vrabel said. "I think to say, 'Well, I'm going to try to play so many more years,' I don't think guys do that. Guys like Rodney (Harrison) and Junior (Seau), they don't do that. They prepare for each year and go at it."

Vrabel, a former Ohio State All-American, does not have imminent plans to abscond to Columbus, where he spends the offseason. His focus is on football and the upcoming season, but he's too smart not to realize he's at a point in his career where the future is measured in games, not years.

Since joining the Patriots in 2001, Vrabel has played in 16 games every season but one -- in 2003, he missed three games because of a broken right arm. But how many more shots can he take, like the one he took last year, when he was kneed in the back of the head after making the game-sealing interception in a 28-21 win over the Detroit Lions? "Hmm … probably a few more," said Vrabel, sardonically.

"I plan to play as long as I can physically play."

Vrabel has been more indispensable than a Swiss Army knife. Because of injuries or the ineffectiveness of others, he has been switched to inside linebacker during each of the past two seasons, and since 2002 he has been used in goal-line situations as a tight end on offense, catching eight passes, all for touchdowns. But the Patriots have determined the best way to use Vrabel, at least defensively, is at outside linebacker.

When the Pats delved deep into their bank account to sign linebacker Adalius Thomas, many assumed Vrabel would move inside next to his pal, Tedy Bruschi. Instead, Thomas has switched inside and the Patriots have made a commitment to keep Vrabel outside, his natural position.

As an outside linebacker, Vrabel has been a productive pass rusher -- his nine sacks in 2003 are the most of any player during the Bill Belichick era in New England -- and a reliable run-stuffer, setting the edge in the team's 3-4 scheme.

Belichick said Vrabel's versatility on defense has been valuable, but he's just as valuable on the outside.

"Mike does a good job at the position that he primarily plays in, too," Belichick said. "So it's not like he's just a utility infielder."

Unlike Thomas's big splash, the signing of Vrabel, who didn't start in four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, barely registered. But it has been a win-win for both sides, to the tune of three Super Bowl titles.

"I've been very happy with the six, going on seven years that I've had here," Vrabel said. "I probably could have gone a different direction if I hadn't signed here in 2001. So I'm fortunate of my time here and try to make the most of it."

Seau said, "Vrabel is obviously one of the mainstays of this defense. He and Bruschi, Rodney, Rosey (Colvin) and (Richard) Seymour, these guys have really helped build what we're doing today and to have them as our nucleus and to keep them intact is a big key to our defense."

As for retirement, Vrabel has an interest in coaching. The son of a football coach, Vrabel has had limited discussions with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel about returning to his alma mater. Vrabel runs a football camp in Columbus with former Buckeyes teammates Ryan Miller and Luke Fickell as part of the Second and Seven Foundation, which the three started to promote literacy throughout central Ohio.

"Coaching 10-year-olds is a little different than coaching at the college level, but certainly we'll take a look at all the options when I do decide to retire," Vrabel said.

Winning, though, will extend any career.

"When you're winning, things go fast and weeks go by fast and time goes by pretty fast," Vrabel said. "When you lose, things slow down and practices are longer and the days are longer and the weeks are longer. The time I've spent here has gone by fairly quickly and that's partly due to our success."

Zastudil on Fire

By Mary Kay Cabot
August 31, 2007

Browns punter Dave Zastudil was sensational, pinning the Bears at their 10, 4 and 7 on his first three punts. Later in the third quarter, he boomed a 51-yarder that Jereme Perry downed at the 1.

"I think he's the best punter in the league," said Cribbs. "He's a great kicker and provides us with amazing field position. Once we start winning, he's going to the Pro Bowl."

Mike Adams downed Zastudil's first punt of 39 yards at the 10. His second, a 36-yarder, skipped out of bounds at the 4 and his third, a 20-yarder, was downed at the 7. The Bears failed to get past the 15 on each of those drives.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Pelini: Mastermind


Bo Pelini's defense didn't fare well at first, but now many consider the LSU coordinator the best in the country

August 19, 2007
By James Varney

BATON ROUGE -- LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini had barely finished his first game on the sideline in September 2005 before the angry growls erupted in Louisiana's purple-and-gold fever swamps.

Yes, the Tigers had beaten Arizona State 35-31 in a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback, but what does victory profit a team, the faithful bellowed, when it surrenders 560 yards? The questions mounted, and the headlines chronicled a beleaguered coach as he sought to reassure the mob that that LSU staple -- stingy defense -- was not a thing of the past.

The program seemed engulfed in chaos, operating in a city overrun with people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The unease only mounted when, in its next game, LSU blew a substantial lead against Tennessee in a game Katrina sent to Monday night at Tiger Stadium and lost 30-27 in overtime. The Times-Picayune intoned that, "questions remain about Bo Pelini's defense."

Consider the questions answered. Today, the short-lived furor over an allegedly porous LSU defense seems like complaints from some ancient regime. The early season alarm bells were quickly quieted as the Tigers reeled off nine consecutive victories and captured the Southeastern Conference Western Division crown.

By the end of that campaign, Pelini's boys had produced streaks of 16 and 10 quarters without allowing a touchdown and finished ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense. The Sun Devils' offensive fireworks proved an anomaly as the 242.8 yards per game the Tigers gave up was the program's lowest in 29 years.

Pelini, 39, insists the doubters never bothered him.

"We haven't changed much at all since I've been here; anybody who says we've made wholesale changes doesn't know what they're talking about," he said. "We've just done it better. There were a lot of circumstances surrounding that first game both on the field and off the field, and we just didn't play real good. I know the system works. I knew that what we were doing was the right way, and we just stayed with our plan."

Whatever minor tinkering Pelini did with LSU's defensive schemes, however, clearly is paying dividends. In 2006, the unit was even better. Once again the team ranked third nationally in total defense and ranked in the top five in three other defensive categories, leading the SEC in six.

Excitement is running high this year as eight starters return, and now the same fans who wondered if Coach Les Miles made a mistake luring Pelini to Baton Rouge from Oklahoma can be heard murmuring LSU may have the top defensive coordinator in the collegiate game.

On signing day in February when Miles introduced his staff to an appreciative crowd, the noticeably loudest roar came when it was Pelini's turn to take a bow. Despite the turnaround in opinions and the impressive results, Pelini said he feels unfulfilled.

"As a coach and as a competitor last year didn't come close to satisfying me, because I don't see the things we achieved. I see the things we left out there last year, and that will forever bother me," he said. "I've been blessed because I've always been around places with high expectations, and that's great. But the last two years in my mind, they're over. They mean nothing. Yeah, it's great to have established a foundation, but that ain't going to help us win any football games this year. We need to take it to that next level."

'A quality individual'

The high expectations and the granite foundation Pelini credits with his success were first laid in Youngstown, Ohio, a blue-collar town where steel production, church and football are the community's lodestars. A member of a devout Roman Catholic family, Pelini attended Cardinal Mooney High School where he met his future wife, Mary Pat, his senior year while she was sophomore.

"We've been dating ever since," he said.

Like most well-raised Buckeye sons, Pelini pursued his football dreams at Ohio State, where he was a free safety from 1987 to 1990 under coaches Earl Bruce and John Cooper and a co-captain his senior season. His coaching career began at Iowa the year after he graduated and then led to three stints in the NFL with the 49ers, Patriots and Packers. It's the kind of résumé that elicits Miles' highest praise, that of "a quality individual."

It was when he returned to the college ranks in 2003 that Pelini's reputation as a defensive guru began to blossom. At Nebraska that year, Pelini coached a defense that finished No. 1 in passing efficiency defense and No. 2 in scoring defense while tying a Cornhuskers record with 47 takeaways.

"It doesn't surprise me a bit Bo has had this kind of success, and I'm proud of him," Cooper, now retired, said from his home in Columbus, Ohio. "To be honest, he reminds me of myself, a guy that wasn't the greatest college football player but was always a student of the game and who made very few mental mistakes."

But the Nebraska program at that point was in turmoil since the departure of legendary coach Tom Osborne. His successor, Frank Solich, had gone 58-19 and was bowl bound, but the school fired him in November 2003 with officials fretting about a slip toward mediocrity. Pelini took over as interim head coach and guided the Cornhuskers to an Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State.

It soon became clear, however, Nebraska was interested in fresh blood, and the school hired former Raiders coach Bill Callahan, who promptly sacked Pelini and six other assistants.

In a move that had to rankle the Cornhuskers faithful, Pelini then headed to hated Oklahoma where his friend, Sooners Coach Bob Stoops, made him defensive co-coordinator. That gig lasted just one year, although it was a season in which the Sooners ranked sixth nationally in rushing defense and played Southern Cal for the national championship.

"I went there because Bob Stoops was a good friend of mine, and it was the right thing for that year, but I had no desire to be a co-coordinator for a long period of time," he said. "After what happened at Nebraska, I wanted to be around a good friend and a stable place and see where I wanted to go next. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do at that point."

What he wound up doing was fielding a call from Miles, whom Pelini had coached against but never met. Miles, recently hired for the head coaching job at LSU after three years at Oklahoma State, brought Pelini in for an interview, and Pelini liked what he saw.
"I thought it was an intriguing opportunity," Pelini said. "A good place, a great conference and a lot of talent, obviously."

Playfully hardcore

Like many defensive coaches, Pelini has a reputation as something of a short-tempered martinet, but, in those segments of practice open to the media, the alleged hardcore mentality seems more the product of stereotype than fact. And while he maintains a professional demeanor, he's not averse to talking smack privately, even against his alma mater.

For example, on the night the Bowl Championship Series matchups were announced last year and LSU was celebrating its Sugar Bowl invitation, Pelini stood outside the football complex chatting with players.

"Hell, yes," he said, when asked if Florida had a chance in the national championship game against Ohio State. "I'm telling you, Ohio State's not that good. Who have they played anyway?"

His words proved prophetic in January when the Gators annihilated the Buckeyes 41-14. He smiles when asked if his bold prediction, a thing he would never make publicly, indicates some sort of split personality.

"When it's time to work, I work," he said. "But when I'm away from here, when I'm with the family, say, I'm not 'Bo Pelini: football coach.' Then I'm just 'Bo Pelini: father.'"

He can wear both paternal and boss hats during practice, a trait players say mirrors his talent at both the tactical and strategic level. At times, he will stand in the middle of the field, arms crossed, his gray LSU T-shirt with "BP" pressed in the middle, silently watching the linebackers or defensive backs. At other times during the searing heat of the recent camp, he would individually approach players who had finished a drill and speak with them one-on-one while simultaneously pouring cold water down their backs.

In one drill he seems to particularly favor, Pelini plays quarterback, slinging his wobbly, left-handed passes into a secondary committing its zones to memory.

"I think he knows when to sit back and let us do our thing and when to step in and get hands-on about it," defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey said. "I think he's great at the strategy, and the other thing is he gets people where they need to be. I look around, and I see a lot of people making plays on this defense, and that's because he has the strategy for getting people in the position to make those plays."

Players and Pelini invoke the same phrase when asked about the defensive goals at LSU: "relentless effort."
The intricate sort of Xs and Os some people associate with tenacious defense are often less important, they claim.

"Multiple but simple," Pelini said when asked to define his philosophy. "Give a lot of looks and be able to do a lot in terms of confusing the offensive coordinator and the quarterback and the opposing offense. Keep it simple for the players, and keep the terminology consistent so the players always know what's going on."

Pelini's defenses excel at tackling. The first player to reach the ball carrier often makes the stop. The players say that stems from an understanding that stopping the run is job one, but they also are aware the Tigers' solidity up front allows for more creativity behind.

"We have a lot of packages -- four, five, six, even seven defensive backs," Pelini said. As a result, "because of all the things we do teams tend to play pretty conservatively against us."

Like any coach, he would like to see more takeaways ("we don't call 'em turnovers around here," Pelini snorted). While last year's interception total of 16 represented "our share," the five fumble recoveries was too meager a harvest.

"We haven't gotten as many fumbles as I would like for whatever reason," he said. "We've gotten the ball on the ground a lot, we just haven't done a good job of getting on the football. We want to have an attitude to get the football -- not to stop them and go three-and-out -- but to get the football."

Eye toward the future

What Pelini seems certain to get, in a move that will no doubt dismay his most vocal early critics, is a head coaching job somewhere else. That is the nature of the game, of course, especially for a coach who has performed repeatedly at a high level with several elite schools.

"You know Bo is going to be a head coach some day, there's not any doubt about that, and it could be as early as next year," Cooper said.

Pelini spoke with Michigan State last year about its head coach opening and some other schools he declined to identify. His one brush with head coaching -- leading Nebraska to that bowl win -- gave him some perspective on the top role.

"That's something I've been going through for the last couple of years," he said, barely disguising his bitterness at the experience with the Cornhuskers. "The only way I would have stayed at Nebraska, after the way it all went down, I wasn't staying there unless I was the head guy and even then that was a little iffy."

At present, he insisted his wife and children -- Kate, Caralyn and Patrick -- are happy with Baton Rouge, with their Catholic parish and their Catholic school. Consequently, he can devote himself wholeheartedly to the things that are expected to make LSU a defensive force and him an increasingly attractive candidate for departure.

"I figure good things will happen if I do my job the right way, and if they don't, they don't," he said, noting the Michigan State opening was wrong for a variety of reasons. "There are a lot of factors that go into something like that, and a lot of them are out of my control. And so I try to take the same attitude I try to instill in my players: Control what you can control.

"It's not just to get a job, it's to make sure you get the right job. And it's just that the right thing hasn't come up yet. I feel I'm fortunate now because I'm in a great place, and I can afford to be a little bit picky."

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ginn Jr. catching on nicely

Rookie receiver shows versatility

August 27, 2007

“His practice habits are solid, probably about as good as any young player I've been around."

-Coach Cam Cameron of the Miami Dolphins about Ted Ginn Jr.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Kampman Stats Stand Out

Peter King
August 6, 2007

Tales from the training camp trail

First, words of praise for Pro Football Prospectus 2007, the terrific, insightful 515-page tome I've been spending far too much time with over the past six days since one of the men who wrote it, good buddy Will Carroll, handed me a copy at Colts camp last Tuesday. The research, done by Aaron Schatz and his crew at, is exhaustive, enlightening, surprising in many cases and an absolute must-read if you like the NFL.

Second: Dwight Freeney is getting worked up over the fact that so many people question how good a year he actually had in '06, when he had an unusually low 5.5 sacks. The Colts agree, and say his pressures were a big part of any success they had on defense. (Which, until late in the season, was pretty limited.) The Prospectus charted pressures at all NFL games last year, and from this research, it appears Freeney might have a point. How they rank the top 10 players in the league in quarterback pressures in 2006:

1. Dwight Freeney, Ind., 33
2. Julius Peppers, Car., 32
3. Kyle Vanden Bosch, Tenn., 29
4. Leonard Little, St. Louis, 26
4. Aaron Schobel, Buffalo, 26
6. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas, 25
7. Aaron Kampman, GB, 24
8. Charles Grant, NO, 21
8. Jason Taylor, Miami, 21
10. Rosevelt Colvin, NE, 20

Interestingly, Prospectus also charted the
league leaders in QB knockdowns (Kampman, 35) and the top quarterbacks in being knocked down (Jon Kitna, 94). Insightful stuff.

Dolphins' Ginn catching on with fans

August 04, 2007

DAVIE — Rookie receiver Ted Ginn Jr. looks to his right, reaches out for the football, and a few seconds later he scores again.

The Dolphins' first-round pick leaves behind another smiling fan.
Ginn doesn't stop there. He continues to sign anything he's handed after several practices this week at training camp.

"The only thing I can do right now for them is go over and sign autographs," said Ginn, whose selection was criticized by many fans. "Once the season starts, I'll try to do other things."

Ginn, an electrifying receiver and return man at Ohio State, arrived at camp last week with plenty of fanfare - he signed a contract that guarantees him $14 million - but without the swagger of many first-rounders.

Coaches and teammates took notice.

"I bet you 85 percent, 90 percent of the first-round draft choices I've had have come in with the new cars and the spinning wheels," receivers coach Terry Robiskie said.

Not Ginn, said defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday, a 10-year veteran.

"A lot of times you see those first-round draft picks come in and they're full of themselves already and haven't done anything in the league," Holliday said. "He doesn't seem to be one of those guys. He's humble and respectful of the league and the guys who came before him - and he's dedicated."

Ginn, 22, knows he has a lot to prove. Many of those now clamoring for his signature were cringing when Miami selected him ninth overall instead of taking Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn.

The Dolphins' draft party felt less than festive when the crowd roundly booed coach Cam Cameron, who took the stage in the team's practice bubble to try to explain the decision.

Fans knew he was fast, but many felt that Ginn was too small (5-feet-11, 178 pounds) and inexperienced (he didn't play receiver until college). Now he is trying to change that perception.

At the team's first practice last Saturday, Ginn made a one-handed catch of an overthrown pass to draw the biggest cheer of the day.

He has continued to impress, flashing sprinter's speed and sure hands whenever his number is called.

Some days, that hasn't been too often. During Wednesday's practice, only one pass came his way.

"We're not doing anything to get guys the ball - you either get it or you don't at this stage," Cameron said.

Like most rookies, Ginn might not make an instant impact. But now fans seem willing to give him a chance.

"I think it will take him a while, but by the end of the season he'll be contributing a lot," said 15-year-old Danny Garcia of Pembroke Pines, who watched practice while wearing Ginn's No. 19 replica jersey. "I feel he's a lot like Reggie Bush or Devin Hester. Every time he touches the ball he can take it all the way."

Robiskie hopes that happens a lot. But he cautioned that Ginn, like any rookie, has a lot to learn.

"Right now, when he breaks the huddle, he's thinking about where he has to be, what he's supposed to do," Robiskie said. "That's what happens with young guys.

"But he'll get it."

Ginn also is getting over the frosty reception he received 14 weeks ago.

"The draft is over and done with; I'm here," he said. "All I can do is go out and make a little improvement and keep playing football."

Praise for Bo Pelini

Louisiana Sports Buzz:
Interview with LSU Glenn Dorsey

By Ed Staton
August 7, 2007

Q: Your opinion of Tigers defensive coordinator Bo Pelini?

A: Coach Pelini is a mastermind. He makes the defense really simple. He drills us trying to get in our heads. That way we won't be thinking that much on the field, we just run the play. He lets us show our athleticism and let's us move around a lot. It's all about working hard and attacking.

Ready, willin’ ’n’ Vrabel

By Albert Breer
August 23, 2007

FOXBORO - When Adalius Thomas arrived in March, he came with a nickname born of his knowledge of Baltimore’s defense: The coordinator.

Funny thing is, the Patriots already had a linebacker on the roster who figures to become one.

As smart and versatile as Thomas proved to be as a Raven, Mike Vrabel has long been that here. And, along the way, his teammates will tell you, the 11th-year linebacker has become something more profound: the model Patriot.

“That’s what we want every player to be,” fellow linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of the versatility of his close friend. “And Vrabel, more than anybody, can do more things than anyone else. He can move over to the offensive side of the ball, and he’ll catch touchdowns. That’s just who he is, just a natural football player.

“Whatever you ask him to do, he’s not only gonna do it, but he’s gonna do it better than anybody else.

The son of a coach who aspires to enter the profession after retirement, Vrabel is again riding a linebacker shuttle that few are capable of boarding. In Bill Belichick’s gap-control defense, he is switching spots for the fourth time in three seasons.

This time, it’s moving back to his more natural spot on the edge, which allows him to play a down stance in a hybrid version of his Ohio State position, end.

“It’s a home that I hadn’t been to in a while,” Vrabel said. “I still need to get better and continue to work, I’m nowhere near where I need to be. And that’s the thing, we’re getting closer to the season, so we gotta start piecing things together.”

But Vrabel also knows how quickly things can change. In each of the past two seasons, he’s made a midseason switch to the inside. In a pinch, he’s even able to line up at Bruschi’s traditional inside spot on the weak side, over a guard.

While Vrabel knows the defense, as Bruschi puts it, “inside and out,” the transitions aren’t always easy. So even though he already has gained enough football knowledge to coach when his playing career is over, Vrabel has readily gone to others to teach him how to play the inside as well as he does the outside.

“(Defensive line coach) Pepper Johnson played that position pretty successful, so I’d ask him stuff,” Vrabel said. “Bill’s coached a lot of years, so I’d ask him. I’d ask Tedy. But right now, my role’s a little different.”

Or, maybe, it’s just more of the same: Do everything on defense, as well as offense and special teams.

“It’s one thing to have the ability to do it, which he does,” Bruschi said. “But you gotta know what to do once you switch positions. Vrabel knows the entire defense inside and out. That’s probably the biggest compliment I can give him. Ask him what a safety does on a particular coverage, and he’ll tell you that, and he’ll throw in what the strong-side corner does too.”

Vrabel dismissed that notion as a part of his job and experience in the system. And the other roles he plays? They’re part of his responsibilities, too.

He calls being a captain an “honor,” but says it’s “misleading” because the Patriots have plenty of those types who don’t carry the title. He’ll tell you he enjoys helping younger players, but adds that it’s simply a natural progression in being a veteran.

As for the comparison of Vrabel with Thomas, Belichick said: “They’re both linebackers that have played inside and outside and have some versatility and are smart players who’ve played in the kicking game. They have a lot in common from that standpoint.”

No matter what position he’s playing, the important thing, Vrabel said, is consistency.

“Don’t flash and then drop off,” he said. “Try to be the same player every week and let your team know the results they’re going to get from you week in and week out. That’s what I try to do.”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ginn's Contract a Standout in 2007 NFL Draft

Ohio State, Part 2

August 5, 2007

Former OSU standout receiver Ted Ginn Jr. has plenty of reason to smile about his new rookie deal with the Miami Dolphins.

In addition to getting a five-year contract - which allows him to reach free agency sooner than many other first-rounders in the 2007 draft – Ginn’s deal is a whopping 31 percent higher than the one signed by last year’s No. 9 overall pick, linebacker Ernie Sims of Detroit.

A onetime Glenville High star, Ginn is represented by Neil Cornrich of NC Sports in Beachwood.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Dawson's Stats

August 19, 2007
By Toni Grossi


Place-kicker Phil Dawson caught a lot of heat for an off-year last season, but since 2000, the Browns rank seventh in field-goal percentage (153-of-185, 82.7 percent). Dawson is 148-for-178 (83.1 percent) during that time. Brett Conway was 5-for-7 in 2003 after Dawson was injured.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Spaeth: A Matt made in football heaven

By: Mike Bires
August 11, 2007

PITTSBURGH - For a guy who caused quite a stir when the Steelers drafted him, Matt Spaeth has sure had a quiet training camp.

A 6-foot-7 giant, the rookie has been flying way under the radar.

That's partly because he was held out of Sunday's preseason win over New Orleans due to a shoulder injury that forced him to miss a few practices earlier in camp.

But tonight when the Steelers play the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field, Spaeth will play.

"Up until the injury, he was starting to impress," coach Mike Tomlin said. "He was doing things that excited us. Now we're excited to see what he can do in a game. That will help us determine where he is right now.

"We've been somewhat intrigued by what he's done on the practice field. So it will be exciting to see him play in a football game."

In April when the Steelers used a third-round draft pick on a tight end, skeptics wondered why. After all, Heath Miller, a No. 1 pick in 2005, is the franchise's tight end of the future. In backup Jerame Tuman, the Steelers have a savvy veteran whose strength is run blocking.

But Steelers scouts and coaches felt Spaeth was just too good to pass up at No. 77 overall in the draft.

There were some concerns about Spaeth's shoulder, which he originally hurt at the University of Minnesota. But his production with the Gophers suggested he could be a valuable addition to the Steelers' offense.

As a senior when he caught 47 passes, he won the John Mackey Award, presented annually to college football's finest tight end. He's Minnesota's all-time leader in receptions (109) and receiving yards (1,291) for a tight end even though he played on a team that emphasized the run.

So although perceived as a pass-catching tight end, his blocking skills are by no means inadequate.

"On one of the first days (at camp) when we had our tight ends taking on outside linebackers, Matt held his own against James Harrison, who's as strong at the point of attack as anyone on our team," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

"He's an impressive guy," Arians added. "This is my 15th year (as an NFL assistant coach), and I tell you, he could have started for most teams I've been on. As a rookie, he could be a starter right now for a lot of teams. The kid's got some talent. We thought he was a steal (in the third round)."

Tonight, Spaeth gets the chance to prove the Steelers' scouting report was accurate.

In Arians' first year as offensive coordinator, he plans to use plenty of two, and even three, tight end sets. Last week in the 20-7 win over the Saints, three tight ends - Miller, Tuman and Matt Dekker - lined up side by side by side on the right side of the formation. And the Steelers passed on that play.

"I hope they do use a lot of multiple tight end sets," Spaeth said. "That's why I'm here. We've been working on stuff, so we'll see what I can do once I get into some games. But it's something we definitely have been working on."

Even though Spaeth originally went to Minnesota as a defensive end, he's been playing tight end from the moment he first played football. His father, Ken Spaeth, was a 6-foot-5 tight end at Nebraska who started two seasons for the Cornhuskers under coach Tom Osborne. Ken Spaeth was picked in the fifth round of the 1978 NFL Draft by Buffalo, but didn't make the team.

Making the Steelers' roster shouldn't be a problem for Matt Spaeth, who switched to tight end permanently after redshirting his freshman year at Minnesota. He started four straight years for the Gophers.

"He has all the tools," Miller said. "He's big. He's got good hands. He runs good routes. He has good feet in the blocking game. He just does everything well.

"So when he becomes more comfortable and stops double-thinking about his assignments, and just goes out and turns it loose, we'll really see how good a tight end he can be. He's got the goods to be a good tight end in this league."

Friday, August 03, 2007

Spaeth Ready to Make Impact

By Pat Kirwan Senior Analyst

August 3, 2007


Matt Spaeth, TE, third-round pick: Spaeth jumped out at me as soon as practice started. The 6-foot-7 rookie tight end has soft hands, runs very good routes and will give the Steelers offense an excellent target over the middle. He has the agility to run a pivot route like a little wide receiver, he can get upfield in a hurry, and he is developing as a blocker. There will be times when Pittsburgh goes to a three-tight end personnel grouping and it will cause problems for defenses.

Dallas Clark is Cool in the Clutch

August 3, 2007

During the '06 season, Dallas Clark wasn't the Colts' go-to receiver, but in the playoffs he became an MVP

By Mike Chappell

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Five tight ends led their NFL teams in receptions in 2006. Not one answered to the name Dallas Clark.

It's a distinction the Indianapolis Colts veteran likely will never attain.

"In this offense, that's never going to happen unless Marvin and Reg take a leave of absence for 16 games," Clark said during a recent break in training camp at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. "And I'll still probably get 40 balls."

Clark knows his role in the Colts' diverse offense is more complementary than as a weekly go-to guy for his camp roommate, quarterback Peyton Manning. The tight end generally gets what's left over from Pro Bowl receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.

But anyone who downplays Clark's value hasn't been paying attention.

"He was the most valuable player of our postseason run," Manning said.

Clark contributed 21 catches during the four-game drive to the Super Bowl championship -- second most in the postseason to teammate Joseph Addai's 22 -- and a league-high 317 yards. Fifteen of Clark's receptions produced first downs, including a critical third-and-5 conversion with less than 4 minutes left in the AFC Divisional game at Baltimore.

"Probably the third-down conversion of the year," Manning said
of Clark's sliding 14-yard reception that led to Adam Vinatieri's fifth field goal, a 35-yarder that sealed a 15-6 victory.

In the AFC title game the following week, Clark had six catches for a career-high 137 yards. That included three catches for 100 yards in the second half, in which the Colts scored 32 points to come from 15 points behind and beat New England 38-34.

"He was like a possessed man running down the field, play in and play out, creating huge plays for us in that comeback," Manning said.

And to think, it all almost didn't happen. After Clark sprained a knee ligament Nov. 26 against Philadelphia, the Colts made a last-minute decision not to place him on the injured-reserve list, allowing him to heal without surgery.

Clark, 28 and entering his fifth season, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. He insists that "however they want to use me, I'm open. Blocking, pass catching, whatever."

Still, he has wondered what it would be like to be more of a focal point.

His 30 catches in the 2006 regular season ranked sixth on the team. Tight ends who led their teams were Tony Gonzalez (Kansas City), Jeremy Shockey (N.Y. Giants), Antonio Gates (San Diego), Todd Heap (Baltimore) and Kellen Winslow (Cleveland).

"If he was in an offense where they really featured him and just made every effort to get the ball to the tight end, he could certainly do that," Colts coach Tony Dungy said.

Instead, Clark waits for his opportunity. When a defense focuses too much on Harrison and Wayne on the outside, Clark will gouge them down the middle. He's a match-up nightmare, whether he's working out of the slot or releasing from the line of scrimmage.

"We know what he's capable of," Dungy said. "I don't foresee an 80-catch season, but I do foresee some of those games where (defenses) really are determined to take away the outside guys where he could have a 10-, 11-, 12-catch day."

Whitner impresses at camp

How are the Bills?

July 31, 2007


Most impressive player at camp so far:

S Donte Whitner. Remember the shock when the Bills took him 8th in last years draft? The experts crushed them for “reaching”. How many teams in the NFL would reach on to the Bills roster and take Whitner right now?

Salley tackles bigger role

July 31, 2007

By Brett Borden

For most of the Carolina Panthers players, coaches and staff at training camp in Spartanburg, SC, this year isn’t much different than the one before. Or the one before that. Or the one before THAT.

But for Nate Salley, this year couldn’t be much more different than last year.

A fourth-round draft choice from Ohio State, Salley’s head was swimming in a pool full of X’s and O’s and checkoffs and coverages as a rookie last year. This year he feels a little more like the pool lifeguard, which is as a safety is what he needs to be.

“I’m picking up the plays,” he said. “Things are slowing up for me and I’m out there having fun playing ball, so I think things are going pretty well for me right now. You kind of know what to expect a little bit more your second time through. Last year I came in not knowing anything. I’m not saying I know it all now, but I have a better feel for what to expect.”

John Fox, who cut his teeth coaching up defensive backs in college and then for five years in the NFL before becoming the Panthers head coach in 2002, knows what he’s looking for on that part of the team. He says the team drafted Salley thinking he could one day possibly start.

“He’s a guy that we saw some promise in and he’s worked really hard,” said Fox. “It’s a tribute to him and his work ethic. He’s a lot more comfortable now in our system as far as the ’What to’s’ and ‘How to’s’. He’s making a case for himself now.

“I’ve been real impressed. Even late last year he showed signs and was close to getting an opportunity.
He had a whole year to practice and unfortunately wasn’t able to get on the field quite as much but he’s come that much more ready to play this year.”

Getting asked to bring your playbook to the coach’s office will do that to a player.

“Last year I got cut,” said Salley, who was signed to the Panthers practice squad a day later. “My mind is on every day and every practice and every meeting to keep my spot. That’s my mindset. I’m not taking anything for granted. I know it’s a blessing to be on the team and I plan on making the most of it.”

As of now he is playing with the first team defense. If everything falls into place, there could be opportunities galore for Salley to make plays should he keep that status.

“I feel great about it,” he said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for me to make a name for myself in this League and certainly on this team. I believe we have a pretty solid team here this year and I’m just going to go out there and keep working to be a part of it.”

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