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Published: Thursday, 1/29/2004

Vrabel leads Patriots in sacks

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

HOUSTON - A quarterback sack by Mike Vrabel was not all that rare an occasion when the linebacker played for Ohio State from 1993-96.

The Akron native and two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year collected 36 sacks and 66 tackles for losses, both school records, during his collegiate career.

In six previous seasons as a pro, however, he had just 141/2 sacks before breaking through this year to lead defense-minded New England with 91/2 sacks, the most by any Patriot during Bill Belichick's reign as head coach.

Vrabel is in his third season - and second Super Bowl - with the Pats after spending his first four pro seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he played outside behind Jason Gildon and Greg Lloyd.

Although he never started a game in Pittsburgh, he was at the top of the Patriots' “must-get” list when he became a free agent after the 2000 season.

“The team we were trying to build was big, strong, fast, tough, smart, and filled with reliable people,” said Scott Pioli, the Pats' vice president of player personnel.

Vrabel was and is all of those things. Plus, the 6-4, 260-pounder is adaptable, sometimes lining up in a three-point stance a la an extra defensive lineman who can bust the run, sometimes playing in pass coverage.

“I can be versatile,” Vrabel said yesterday. “I've had to be versatile in my career just to stick around. The more you can do, the better the chance of staying on the field. The league has become so specialized [on offense] that you have to be able to match personnel.

“If you can cover, if you can rush, if you can play the run, it gives you a chance to stay on the field and play [against] three-wide-receiver sets and two-tight-end sets. I've played inside. I've played outside. In nickel, I'll play end sometimes. By being versatile and understanding what everyone's doing, it gives me an advantage of being able to line up in different places.”

Vrabel was the AFC defensive player of the month for December with 27 tackles (17 solo), four sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

He has continued his fine play during the playoffs with a combined 15 tackles (11 solo) and one sack in wins over Tennessee and Indianapolis.

“Mike is one of those guys that when you give him something to do it's like he's been doing it forever,” Belichick said. “He's got a very quick learning curve and is very adaptable. He can play a number of different roles.”

BEEN THERE: Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has a unique perspective on the game. He is one of only two franchise owners ever - the other was NFL legend George Halas of the Chicago Bears - to also have played in the league.

Richardson was a rookie member of the Baltimore Colts' 1959 NFL championship team and caught a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas in the title victory over the New York Giants.

“I think I have an appreciation for this game unlike any other owner today,” said Richardson, who was awarded an NFL expansion franchise in October of 1993. “I was in the huddle in the fourth quarter when the Giants were beating us 9-7. And I was in the game when we were ahead 14-9 and then 21-9. Obviously, there's not a current owner with a memory like that. It has been a blessing for me and I'm grateful for it.”

SMACK TALK: With a record of 36-14 over the past three seasons, and set for a second Super Bowl appearance during that time frame, some are fitting the New England Patriots for dynasty status.

“Dynasty? What have we done?” asked Pats linebacker Larry Izzo. “We have to win Sunday before that even becomes a topic of conversation. That doesn't enter our minds at all. What good does it do to sit here and think about something hypothetical like that? Our place in the record books will be determined by others somewhere down the line. My job isn't to daydream about the possibilities of people saying we're the greatest. If we start thinking about that, we'll get smacked in the face on Sunday.”

THREE-DOT DATA: Carolina coach John Fox joined Vince Lombardi (Green Bay, 1960) and Bill Parcells (New York Jets, 1998) as the third coach in NFL history to inherit a one-win team and guide it to the playoffs in his second season on the job. ... In 18 games this season, the Patriots' defense held quarterbacks to a lower passer rating than they compiled against all other opponents 15 times. ... Todd Sauerbrun of the Panthers is the only punter since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to lead either conference in gross punting average three straight years. He had an NFC-best gross average (yardage before returns) of 44.6 yards this season. Of his 77 punts, 22 were downed inside the 20-yard line. ... Patriots cornerback Ty Law needs one interception to tie Raymond Clayborn's franchise career record of 36. ... Opposing teams have converted 81 times out of 235 third-down opportunities (34.5 percent) against the New England defense.

Hackenberg's column



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