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Inside story of success

Vrabel is a big hit at his new position

FOXBOROUGH -- There probably isn't a position on the football field that Mike Vrabel doesn't study. But over the past couple of years, he certainly noticed the play of inside linebackers Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi. After all, knowing what the guys next to you are doing and what their responsibilities are can come in very handy.

Vrabel is basically playing Bruschi's old position and Bruschi is now playing Johnson's old position.

Vrabel's transition from edge linebacker to inside guy may have looked seamless to outsiders, and while it hasn't quite been that perfect, Vrabel has pretty much saved the day for the Patriots' front seven.

If there's a defensive MVP on the team, would not Vrabel be the leading candidate? Could a guy playing the inside for the first time in his career be a Pro Bowler?

They are valid questions, though such accolades are the farthest thing from Vrabel's mind right now, when his team is just starting to get into a winning rhythm; the Patriots have won two in a row for the first time this season as they approach Sunday's game at Kansas City.

As the season began, the Patriots didn't have Bruschi, and so the Monty Biesels and Chad Browns had to take their shots inside.

Vrabel saw his first inside duty in a loss to Denver Oct. 16. Since then, he has been a mainstay.

''I like it," said Vrabel. ''I like the change. I'm not rushing the passer as much as I used to, which I enjoyed doing, but if this is helping us on defense, then that's what I'm all about.

''I don't care about the individual things or what it may or may not be doing to me. I just care that on Sunday I'm playing a position that they need me to play and trying to do the best I can to make a play to help us win."

Vrabel's move inside has meant that Rosevelt Colvin has become a full-time outside linebacker, with Willie McGinest. Colvin has also benefited from more playing time; he resembles the pre-hip-injury Colvin, the one who played at a Pro Bowl level with the Bears when he fed off Brian Urlacher.

Vrabel, 30, understands that circumstances change rapidly in New England, given the opponent or the game plan for the week, but if he stays inside, he'll embrace the opportunity.

''I never assume anything like that around here," he said. ''It's been four or five games and I've been doing it. I'm really learning on the job. Every week it seems I face something that I haven't encountered before, and that's exciting for me and the way I'm reacting to things.

''Tedy's alongside me, so he's putting his two cents in, and that's great because I'm playing Tedy's old spot, so who knows better about what's going on than Tedy? We communicate very well around here.

''We're trying to get this unit playing well together, as we have in the past, and for the past couple of games we seem to be taking steps in that direction."

There are still problems in the secondary, but last year the front seven was so stout that it covered them up. The goal is to reach that point again. Over the past two games, the Patriots have stopped the run, holding the Dolphins to 77 yards and the Saints to 87 after allowing an average of 116 to that point. The return of Richard Seymour has a lot to do with that, but Vrabel is making plays and playing a much more physical game than he's ever had to do before.

''I feel it a lot on Monday and Tuesday, which is fine," said Vrabel. ''There's no shortage of encounters you face on a weekly basis. I'm getting more direct hits from those 340-, 350-pound linemen, but once you make a hit on one of those guys and you come out of it OK, you start to believe and have that confidence grow within you that 'I'm going to be able to do this.'

''Really, a lot of it is just adjusting to new looks, and sometimes you have to make those adjustments on the sidelines between series."

It shouldn't be a surprise that Vrabel has been able to pull this off. He is a student of the game, projected by some to be a head coach or at least an assistant when his playing days are over.

He didn't have a lot of time to prepare, though. When Johnson announced his retirement, Vrabel was a bit nicked up in camp; he didn't get a full look at the position until the Denver game. He didn't have the time to gain weight, nor does he think he will, even if the role becomes permanent.

Roman Phifer made the switch from outside to inside for the Patriots two years ago, and he did gain a few more pounds and concentrated on weightlifting to handle the extra contact.

Opponents don't seem to consider Vrabel a weak link, gearing their game plans toward the guy who's out of position.

''I haven't seen that at all," said Vrabel, ''like, 'OK, let's run at him.' I kind of wish they would because that would be a challenge I'd be up for.

''I think anybody has to respect our defense and our personnel on the field. I've played in this league for a while now, so I don't think teams would view me as the guy they could run against."

What he's looking for is for the Patriots to stop playing such tightly contested games.

''Games don't need to be this tight or close as some of them have been," he said. ''We need to go out there and play hard and finish things off. We're letting teams get back into games when they shouldn't be."

Of course, the most fun he has is when he gets into the lineup at tight end and catches touchdown passes, as he did against the Saints.

''That's always fun, yeah, sure," he said. ''Because the focus is going to be on Ben [Watson] and Christian [Fauria], it has allowed me to sneak one in there. I've always enjoyed that. You just want to make sure you catch it when it's thrown your way."

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