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Goal-oriented Vrabel thriving

Linebacker keeps giving offense lift

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- You would think they would learn. You would think someone, somewhere, would figure that -- this time -- Mike Vrabel ought to be covered sliding out of that tight end position on the goal line.

He ends up in the same spot every time. Toward the middle of the end zone, way in the back, jogging to the right -- though he insists the plays aren't all the same. But he's uncovered (almost always) as the pass out of the hand of Tom Brady zings straight to him.

Yes, he's a linebacker. But considering this pass-catching business, you would think some opposing defensive coordinator might put an obstacle in his path.

''A lot of it is just good play-calling at the right time. You get down there on the 1-yard line, there's a lot to cover," said Vrabel, who caught two touchdown passes last night in the Patriots' 31-21 win over the Jets at the Meadowlands. ''I'm trying to fly under the radar the best I can."

Vrabel, who also led the team with six tackles and one sack, hit the field for every one of the Patriots' goal line offensive plays, always positioned as the tight end, always after the announcement that No. 68 was an eligible receiver. Though Tom Ashworth (bearer of that 68) wasn't the target of Brady's strikes last night, the offensive lineman's appearance couldn't have thrown off the defense that much.

Could it?

Either way, the Brady-to-Vrabel connection has become one of the most reliable for the Patriots. Catch a pass, score a touchdown. Vrabel has eight career receptions. Vrabel has eight career touchdowns, with two coming in Super Bowls.

For the season, the linebacker stands tied for second on the team in touchdown receptions (three) with fellow tight ends Benjamin Watson and Daniel Graham. He is also tied for second with four touchdowns overall; one came as part of his day job, an interception return.

''He's doing a good job so far," Watson said. ''I don't worry about it. It's just another benefit we have, that we can put him in there in a skill position like that and he can score for us.

''As long as we [are] winning the games, that's what counts. He been doing it longer than me. He's been doing it here for longer than I have. I need to take advice from him."

So, quickly, here are the Vrabel stats, the ones that might just make him, not Brady, the MVP of the Patriots this season.

For the first six weeks of the season, he was the only member of the Patriots to have an interception (the aforementioned score, against Carolina). He leads the team in tackles with 103. His shift, from outside linebacker to the inside, signaled the return to respectability of the Patriots' defense. He has four touchdown catches, three on offense. Do you see Brady making tackles in his spare time?

While Brady on defense might be a bit of a stretch, that doesn't minimize Vrabel's impact. He has, somehow, made Ashworth -- who caught a TD pass last week -- into an offensive threat. And that takes some doing.

With Vrabel on duty, the absence of tight end Graham didn't hurt against the Jets last night. Vrabel is a big target -- 6 feet 4 inches, 261 pounds -- who generally seems to go uncovered. (No chance for a third touchdown -- the Patriots ran on their only trip to the goal line after the second score.) He's ready and waiting, with a big set of hands and positioning on his defender.

And he's not going to turn down a touchdown. Not in the Super Bowl. Not in a (relatively) meaningless game against the Jets -- even if it still quickens his heart rate a bit.

''You turn around and there's the ball, you see Tom throwing it to you and it's just . . .," Vrabel paused. ''Don't mess it up."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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