Monday, August 27, 2007

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.”

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