Linebacker Vrabel effective on both sides of ball for Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quarterbacks should keep their eyes on Mike Vrabel, whether he's trying to tackle them or getting open to catch a touchdown pass.

Defenders should do the same when the Patriots linebacker lines up at tight end.

 The Redskins left Vrabel unguarded last Sunday when he caught a 2-yard scoring pass from Tom Brady that gave New England a 14-0 lead in their 52-7 rout. That was his 10th reception in his 11 NFL seasons, every one a touchdown, but none longer than 2 yards.

By now, you'd think opponents would pay attention to him near the goal line.

"Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't," he said Wednesday. "When they do, I don't get the ball, and when they don't cover me, I get the ball. You can only stop so much down there."

If a player covers him there would be more room for the Patriots to run the ball. That also would divert a defender from more dangerous threats: wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth.

"I would always cover Randy before me," Vrabel said with a smile. "I'm not running out there every time thinking I'm going to score."

When he does get into the pass pattern, Brady has confidence.

"He's very good at evading defenders and getting off the line of scrimmage," Brady said. "He's very quick. He uses his hands well."

Vrabel is the only player in NFL history who has scored on all of his regular-season catches, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He's 8-for-8 not counting playoffs.

Of players with at least five touchdown catches, tight end Mike Bartrum, at 6-for-11, has the second-highest percentage. Bartrum had two touchdowns with New England and four with Philadelphia.

On his latest touchdown, Vrabel was open in the end zone after going in motion from left to right and faking a block on a linebacker who anticipated a run.

But his primary mission is to tackle offensive players. On Sunday, those would be Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne and other Indianapolis Colts in a matchup of unbeaten teams.

The Patriots improved to 8-0 when they beat Washington. Vrabel had 13 tackles. He had three sacks of Jason Campbell, forcing a fumble on each one. Rosevelt Colvin returned the last one 11 yards for a touchdown. Ty Warren recovered the other two.

"It was like I was out there Easter egg hunting or picking up a golden egg," Warren said. "You just have to continue to play and sometimes the ball might literally bounce in your direction."

The 6-foot-4, 241-pound Vrabel has a combination of speed, strength and smarts that make him a threat on both sides of the ball.

"You can be out there in the game and he'll say, 'Watch out for this or be looking for that. It may be a screen or a draw,' just calling out the plays," defensive end Richard Seymour said. "We always joke at the end of the game. He says, 'Hey, Sey, at the end of the game I'm going to hand them back their playbook,' because he's so in tune."

The Patriots first saw that when he was a rookie with Pittsburgh in 1997. Like he did against Campbell, he sacked New England's Drew Bledsoe, forcing a fumble in the final minutes of a second-round playoff game. The Steelers held on for a 7-6 win.

He has 7½ sacks this season, fifth in the NFL and first among linebackers. Just two more and he'll match his career high set in 2003.

His three sacks last Sunday led to 17 points.

The first came midway through the second quarter on the fourth play after his touchdown and set up Stephen Gostkowski's 36-yard field goal. He got the second with 1:49 left in the half, setting up Brady's 6-yard scoring pass to Moss.

Then, on the Redskins third play of the third quarter, Vrabel sacked Campbell again and Colvin scooped up the ball and ran it in. Vrabel had lined up at left end and got a free shot at the quarterback when the right tackle and running back both tried to block Junior Seau coming up the middle.

"Any time that somebody makes a play, more times than not other (defensive) guys are involved," Vrabel said. "Probably the worst ball security guy on the field is the quarterback. When he's looking to try to make a play and if you have some awareness, you can usually get it out."

Vrabel didn't force Manning to fumble, but did sack him with 10:43 left in last season's AFC championship game. The Colts punted two plays later and the Patriots followed with a field goal for a 31-28 lead. But Indianapolis won 38-34.

"I think we certainly are aware of it," Vrabel said of the season-ending loss. "It's not going to have any bearing on this week's game."

But Vrabel might, in more ways than one.

"It's no surprise what he's been able to do," Seymour said. "You put him anywhere, he'll just go out and play. He's out there like a coach on the field. He's as prepared as anybody I've been around."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.

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