by Christopher Price
With the Patriots’ offense on the goal line, everyone seems to know what’s going to happen when Mike Vrabel enters the game. Everyone can hear over the public address system when the referee announces, “No. 50 is reporting as eligible.” And everyone knows that when the converted linebacker lines up at tight end, the chances are pretty good he’s going to get the football.
So why does Vrabel have so many touchdown catches?
The Ohio State grad has made a career as a part-time tight end — he caught his eighth regular-season touchdown pass and his 10th overall TD pass (including two in the playoffs) on a 2-yard scoring catch from quarterback Tom Brady in the second quarter. It was his second of the season — Vrabel also caught a touchdown pass on Oct. 1 at Cincinnati.
Each of Vrabel’s 10 career receptions have been for touchdowns — including one in Super Bowl XXXVIII and one in Super Bowl XXXIX. Including his one career interception return for a touchdown, Vrabel now has totaled nine career regular-season touchdowns, the fifth-highest total in a New England uniform by a current Patriot (trailing only Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, Randy Moss and Benjamin Watson).
Each touchdown looks relatively similar — Vrabel slips unnoticed past the defensive line on a short little down and out or down and in play. But each of his touchdown catches has its own wrinkle. There’s the occasional element of surprise — like his catch against the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, as well as his first career TD catch against the Chargers back in 2002. Sometimes, he simply beats the coverage — like his effort against Philadelphia and Jevon Kearse in Super Bowl XXXIX.
But many times, he gets help from his teammates. That appeared to be the case Sunday against the Redskins, when Vrabel was able to get so wide open in the right corner of the end zone was thanks in large part to some trickeration along the offensive line, which made it look like New England was going to run the ball.
“I think it was a good sell by the offensive line,” said Brady of the play, which culminated with a two-yard catch by Vrabel that put the Patriots up 14-0 and served as the latest example of the fact that Ohio State and Michigan guys really can co-exist in peace.
“If they’re playing the pass and you run it then they’re screwed, and if you try to make it look like a run and Vrabel slips out for a pass, then you leave him open.”
Head Coach Bill Belichick said Sunday, the Redskins were doing their due diligence and playing to stop the run first in that situation. But when you get into that sort of situation, you’re forced to pick your poison — Belichick recalled a play earlier in the season against the Chargers when San Diego used the same sort of formation — with ex-New England offensive lineman Gene Mruczkowski at tight end — and ended up scoring on a short pass from Philip Rivers to Lorenzo Neal.
“It’s tough on the goal line. You’re trying to stop the run, play-action passes. You’re only defending a yard, so it’s tough,” Belichick said. “We gave one up earlier in the year to San Diego, right? Standing out there, it looks like he’s out to practice early. That’s tough.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter which position you play. If you’ve got a good set of hands and can get open, Brady’s going to find you — even if you did go to Ohio State.
“He’s very good at evading defenders and getting off the line of scrimmage,” Brady said of Vrabel. “He’s very quick [and] he uses his hands well. He’s got good hands when he catches it.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. How the New England defense goes about trying to stop Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark. The Patriots were tormented by Clark in last year’s AFC Championship Game — he finished with six catches for 137 yards. Safety Rodney Harrison struggled at times when faced with Dallas tight end Jason Witten earlier in the season, a good tight end. It remains to be seen how they will go about stopping Clark.
2. How the Indy defense goes about trying to stop Randy Moss. If the Patriots are worried about stopping Clark, the Colts are just as concerned about Moss. Historically, they’ve done OK, but that might only be because they’ve faced Moss just once — Dec. 24, 2000, when the Vikings played at the RCA Dome and lost, 31-10. In that one, Moss finished with one catch — a touchdown pass from Daunte Culpepper — for 42 yards.
3. If the Patriots try and run a lot of play-action. According to the 2007 Pro Football Prospectus, the Colts allowed an astounding 7.6 net yards per pass on play-action fakes last season. Laurence Maroney appears to be nearly back to full strength — he was on the field for 24 of the 76 offensive snaps the Patriots had against the Redskins. If he’s anywhere near healthy, a resurgent Maroney will provide some depth in the running game and force the Colts to respect the possibility of play-action.
4. The continued assimilation of Richard Seymour into the No. 1 defense. The results of our highly unscientific data — we may have missed him for a play or two in the fourth quarter — show Seymour on the field for 18 of the 53 defensive snaps Sunday against the Redskins. After missing the first seven weeks of the season, the Pro Bowl defensive lineman had some rust against Washington, but will likely play a larger role in the defensive game plan this week against Indianapolis.
5. If the Patriots and Colts can break the scoring record for the RCA Dome. According to the Indianapolis media guide, the record for most points scored in a game by two teams at the RCA Dome is 79, when the Colts beat the Packers on Nov. 16, 1997, 41-38. There’s a pretty good chance that the Patriots and Colts will come close to shattering that mark on Sunday.
STAT OF THE WEEK
164. With 38 interception-free passes Sunday against the Redskins, Tom Brady has now thrown 164 straight passes without an interception, tying the longest such streak of his career.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“It’s our job to keep them off the board. This is football, it’s a competitive sport. They are a good team. We just have to do what we need to do to keep them out of the end zone.”— Washington safety Pierson Prioleau, speaking with reporters about whether or not the Patriots ran up the score on the Redskins.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at [email protected].